Tuesday 17 October 2017

John Greene: Horan given clear mandate to shake things up

John Horan, almost in tears, after he was elected with 144 votes as Uachtarán-Tofa during the 2017 GAA Annual Congress. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
John Horan, almost in tears, after he was elected with 144 votes as Uachtarán-Tofa during the 2017 GAA Annual Congress. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
John Greene

John Greene

The race to be the next president of the GAA was thought to be a highly competitive one. In the end it was anything but as Dubliner John Horan obliterated the field at Congress on Friday night, securing just over half of the 278 votes. Fancied by many to succeed, there was still considerable surprise at the facile manner of Horan's victory. The school principal was elected on the first count, certainly an unusual outcome in a five-man contest.

Horan has not reached the Association's highest office through conventional means, having moved up through the schools system before eventually becoming a very able chairman of the Leinster Council, ironically succeeding one of the men he defeated on Friday night, Longford's Martin Skelly.

The new president will take office at a difficult time, however. The GAA is not quite in crisis, but to many observers it has reached a crossroads. The current model is simply not sustainable. Indeed, there was a sense of this at Congress, a feeling among many I spoke to, that a change of direction is needed.

The structures of the football and hurling championships and their impact on the relationship between club and county have reached a pressure point and yesterday's changes will do little to alter that. Clubs are feeling more and more disenfranchised - and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply not in touch with what is going on.

Into that mix, then, come other pressures and these were highlighted too as delegates spoke about the severe impact the decline of rural Ireland is having on the Association. They spoke about smaller family sizes, the gradual withdrawal of services like banks, post offices, Garda stations - even schools - and the devastating impact this is having. One-off housing and the problems people are experiencing in building in their native parishes even featured.

In his annual report, Páraic Duffy noted: "In every small town there are numerous boarded-up shops where once there were thriving businesses. The perception of many rural organisations is that, while money is being spent on infrastructural investment and job-creation in the cities, little is being done to create employment or to invest in the social and economic life in rural Ireland.

"Young people move to the larger population centres for a third-level education and very often have to stay there to pursue employment opportunities; if that fails, they emigrate. The consequences for the GAA are serious and are already having a very negative impact on rural clubs all over the country, but particularly on clubs in counties along the west coast. For many clubs it has meant a reduction in the number of teams competing in county competition; for others, it has been a struggle simply to remain in existence."

This, of course, is in stark contrast to the problems in Dublin, and the immediate hinterland, including parts of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, which poses a whole other set of challenges to the GAA in having the resources and facilities to cater for growing numbers.

These two interconnected issues cannot be solved by the GAA. As Duffy observed, clubs will fight as hard as they can to rail against the obstacles put in their way in order to survive, but this resolve should not be taken for granted either. Anecdotally, you hear there is an air of exasperation among pockets of club volunteers who are desperate for the GAA to become more vocal on this matter. Indeed, Duffy accepted on Friday night when he spoke to delegates that the Association needs to be more vocal in putting pressure on the government to act. The GAA needs to lend its voice to this cause.

"The starting point is to challenge the accepted truth that this decline is inevitable and irreversible," wrote Duffy in his report.

The truth is that the GAA cannot stand idly by because it is the organisation best placed to lead the charge on this and it would indeed be a happy irony if John Horan, a Dublin native, made this one of the cornerstones of his three-year presidency. The issues around the championships are not going away any time soon either and will become an even bigger topic for debate during Horan's term.

To be fair to Duffy, he did not hold back on Friday night when addressing this issue and asking first and foremost if county boards are doing enough within their power to tackle the club fixtures problem and, in particular, in curbing the power of county managers to wreak havoc on ordinary club players.

Duffy asked if the Association needs to be spending so much on preparing county teams. And in raising the possibility of introducing spending caps, he - correctly - speculated that counties would find ways around such a move.

Ultimately, hard questions need to be asked and some serious soul-searching is required. If Horan were to spend the next 12 months before taking office pondering these two major issues and how, on his watch, he can be an instrument for change then it will be time well spent.

Having spent the last few months travelling the country - and further afield - speaking to county committees and outlining his vision for the future, the size of his vote suggests his message got through, something he alluded to in the moments after the result was announced. In political terms, he has been given a very clear mandate.

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