Martin Breheny: Hypocrisy the root cause of disciplinary shortcomings
When news broke that the Disputes Resolution Authority had cleared Diarmuid Connolly to play in last Saturday's semi-final replay it was greeted by gasps of surprise.
The general view held that having failed to convince either the GAA's Central Hearings Committee (CHC) or Central Appeals Committee (CAC) that he was unfairly dismissed in the drawn Dublin-Mayo game, he had little chance of succeeding with the DRA.
Effectively, the DRA is the GAA's version of the Supreme Court, the ultimate decision-maker. And since CHC and CAC, two high-powered disciplinary bodies, had ruled against Connolly, it was thought unlikely that the DRA would find any deficiencies.
However, the DRA decided that there had been "a lack of fair procedure afforded to Mr Connolly at an early stage in the GAA's internal disciplinary process, which unfairly hindered the preparations for, and presentation of, his defence".
The full judgement will be issued before the end of next week, outlining the specific details.
The DRA's decision sparked some hysterical comment, claiming that the GAA's disciplinary system lay in tatters and how it was time to dismantle it and start again.
Why? The DRA adjudicated on a case and found against the GAA on technical grounds.
It did not rule on whether Connolly should have been red-carded, but rather on whether the case was handled properly. The DRA, which is independent of the GAA, found the procedure to have been defective.
Those who are blaming the DRA for overruling the previous decisions are missing the point. The DRA's duty is to make a call as it sees it, without regard to the possible implications for the disciplinary system.
The DRA's decision doesn't mean that CHC or CAC got it wrong. It's all about opinion and in the DRA's view - ultimately the most important because it's the last port of call - the process had been unfair to Connolly.
It's important to recall why the DRA was set up ten years ago. Prior to then, there had been several instances of players getting court injunctions to escape from suspensions.
They were usually applied for a few days before a game, and since there was no time to hear the full case, the suspended players were almost always cleared to play.
The establishment of the DRA ended the rush to the courts, since it became far more difficult to convince a judge of the merits of an injunction if an independent body had already made a determination.
In the early days of the DRA, the members faced a busy workload as players tested out the new system.
Gradually, however, the numbers eased off as it became more difficult to find loopholes in the GAA's own disciplinary systems. And, once they held solid, the DRA generally backed them.
However, events over the last few seasons are encouraging suspended players to feast off the full disciplinary menu again. Several bans imposed in the latter stages of the championships didn't stick, having been overturned either by the Hearings or Appeal Committees.
Last month alone, quite a few sanctions proposed by the Central Competitions Control Committee either fell or were reduced when they came before CHC.
Mayo's Kevin Keane was cleared after being sent off on a straight red against Donegal. Conor Meyler (Tyrone) had a black card rescinded, while his colleague Tiernan McCann had a charge of discrediting the Association reduced to a yellow card.
A charge against Jamie Clarke of "disruptive conduct by a player" on the day Armagh played Galway also fell at CHC. Dublin and Armagh had a fine reduced, arising from their behind-closed-doors bust-up.
And Lee Keegan, whose clash with Connolly led to the recent controversy, had a red card rescinded after being sent off against Kerry in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.
The reality for the GAA's disciplinary system is this: it will never be as robust as its soccer or rugby equivalents because it's operating in a small country where everyone knows everyone else.
Also, rugby and soccer doesn't have as many disciplinary layers as the GAA because it's the international norm.
It's much more difficult to apply that to indigenous sports in a small country. The end result is that players - backed by their county boards - will pursue every avenue in an attempt to find a loophole.
The more committees they go before, the more likely they are to find an escape route.
And, for as long as there are so many layers to the process, that will continue. Yet, if an attempt were made to remove even one of them, it would face stern opposition.
Ultimately, it's all about my Johnny never doing anything wrong. And, if he does, let's find a loophole in the disciplinary system.
So while it's easy to blame various committees whose members are doing their best to get things right, the problem rests elsewhere, with a general culture throughout the Association that doesn't want to see a player - irrespective of what he has done - suspended. And certainly not in August or September.
Guess what? Someone will be writing exactly the same in 30 years' time because history shows that while everyone pays lip service to discipline in the GAA, most seem to believe it should never involve a player missing a big game.
It's called hypocrisy. And it's rampant.