Stage set for GAA to crack down on racism
CROSSMAGLEN'S Aaron Cunningham is not the first player to allege that he had been subjected to racist abuse during a football or hurling match, but the timing of his complaint meant the GAA simply could not ignore it.
Other players, from his own father Joey (who played for Armagh) to former Dublin star Jason Sherlock and current Wexford dual player Lee Chin, have voiced similar complaints but usually in a more low-profile way at club level or retrospectively.
Few have ever complained about it to a match official during a game as Cunningham did in last month's Ulster club football final on December 2.
No one has ever made such a stark accusation in the aftermath of such a high-profile match, especially with so much media and live television present. Cunningham's public allegation that he had been racially abused by the opposition and from the stands created a precedent that the GAA had to address.
It was an elephant in the room that simply couldn't be ushered out behind a screen if the Association is to maintain its position as an inclusive all-island sports body which brokers no discrimination of any kind from any of its members.
It, worryingly, came in the wake of several other cases of alleged racial abuse at club level. In Wexford two Duffry Rovers players were suspended for eight weeks in June for remarks made to Chin.
Cootehill Celtic also made a formal complaint to their county board last winter that one of their players had been subjected to a racist taunt in the replayed Cavan intermediate final.
Yet the manner in which this most high-profile controversy has been handled underlines just how difficult an area it is for sports officials to administer, particularly the GAA.
Ulster officials immediately promised a thorough investigation and stressed that nothing would be swept under the carpet, as did the Kilcoo club.
The Down champions have reportedly co-operated fully with Ulster Council's investigation and are still helping them to identify any supporters allegedly involved in the abuse.
Of the two Kilcoo players subsequently singled out by Ulster Council's investigation, one has subsequently been exonerated on appeal and the other has had his proposed suspension reduced from six to four months and could yet take his appeal further.
The game took place over five weeks ago and those successful appeals were made to the Ulster Hearing Committee on December 20.
Yet Ulster Council has not yet released the results of their investigation and refused to discuss the case yesterday. Kilcoo also refused to comment, despite the fact that one of their players has been exonerated and another has had his suspension substantially reduced.
People will inevitably wonder why there is not more transparency and how one Ulster committee can overrule the findings of another.
But the latter is about due process and the former underlines the dilemma that this case has created for the GAA, for which it is a grey area.
The official GAA rulebook does not actually have a rule that mentions racial abuse at all and verbal abuse of an opponent is already regarded as far less an offence than abusing a match official. If players verbally abuse a match official they get an automatic red card but using "provocative language" to an opponent is merely a yellow.
In this instance, the Kilcoo players were accused of bringing the game into disrepute, which carries heavier punishments.
The Ulster Council's investigation committee, by proposing a six-month suspension for one player and four months for another, felt this had occurred.
Another body within the same province, the Ulster Hearing Committee, disagreed with their findings, exonerating one player and reducing another's six-month ban to four, which is entirely within their remit.
There may have been a lack of public transparency so far in this case but it is believed that Ulster's reticence to comment so far is because they fear they might prejudice any further appeals.
In the immediate wake of the controversy, GAA president Liam O'Neill condemned all forms of verbal abuse and said he wants to introduce tougher punishments to rid Gaelic games of all forms of it, not just race-related comments.
Prompted by the Chin case, Wexford have already forwarded a motion to Congress this year to try to get racist abuse upgraded to a straight red card offence.
And it is believed that Central Council may also formulate its own rule which would guarantee it would finally get into the rule book. That would make the referee and match officials the final arbiter in some instances but would probably not solve the problem entirely.
In Cavan the allegations at club level were noticeably thrown out for lack of evidence and this will always be the dilemma when racist abuse is alleged.
But the Crossmaglen/Kilcoo case, if nothing else, should help the GAA to introduce a formal rule this year to outlaw it and finally have a more permanent effect than all of the lip-service to date.