New club guidelines may help to reduce instances of all being equal but some still being more equal than others
There was a small step taken in the right direction for gender equality in the GAA last week, although it slipped by largely unnoticed. The GAA, the Camogie Association and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association issued a set of guidelines to assist clubs who field male and female teams to become more integrated.
Mind you, it is only a small step and there is a long, long way to go before we can truly say the GAA has fully embraced equality. The guidelines published last week are not mandatory which means that in any clubs where there is resistance to treating teams equally, nothing is likely to change in the foreseeable future.
From an administrative point of view, the GAA is slowly moving forward in terms of clubs having increased female representation, but from a playing point of view, things are lagging behind.
The fact that the three associations remain as separate, autonomous bodies means that Gaelic football and hurling are the only publicly-funded sports in Ireland still divided on gender grounds and we appear to be a long way from getting over that particular obstacle. Some, it seems, are more willing than others to cross the divide.
For the last few years, the GAA has promoted a 'One Club' approach but this has remained largely undefined until now and so clubs were free to completely ignore the concept - which many regrettably did, and continue to do - or to make it up as they went along, a sort of à la carte approach to gender equality along the lines of that which pertained in Animal Farm where some were more equal than others.
At least last week's agreement has put a framework to the 'One Club' concept, and that is a welcome development.
The guidelines are largely common sense and there are plenty of progressive clubs who are already deeply engaged in implementing some or all of them. In my own club, for instance, where there are ladies football teams, all 12 of the guidelines published last week are already in practice and have been for some time.
The main points of note in the guidelines are that everyone is registered as a member of the GAA, and that includes ladies footballers and camogie players, who will separately be registered with their sport's parent body too; each code is managed by its own committee but is overseen by the club's main executive; the executive committee should have adequate representation from the other codes; the membership fee is not varied by reference to code played; all bank accounts are controlled by the club executive but there is a co-ordinated approach to fundraising; and there is a shared approach to coaching.
It might come as a surprise to some that these basics have to be laid out in such a fashion, but there are still many clubs deeply rooted in outdated ideas where the presence of ladies football or camogie teams is seen as a negative. Since ladies football was started in our area a few years ago it has enriched our club hugely. It has also opened the door for young girls to have access to regular physical activity in a way that had never before been the case. Overall membership has increased dramatically, playing numbers have increased and the strength of the club on the ground to carry out its core functions - as well as some newer social initiatives - has been enhanced. In a very short space of time, the mixture of teams has gone from the extraordinary to the ordinary; it is simply part of everyday life in the club. And that is as it should be.
One of the big issues clubs have encountered is the difference in membership fees for the three associations. The GAA, given its size and power, has remained a relatively inexpensive organisation to join and clubs have been free to set their own rates.
However, membership of the GAA does not extend to those who wish to play camogie or ladies football and economies of scale come into play so that the fees for those two associations are considerably higher.
It is very difficult for clubs to charge a family one rate for their son and a significantly higher one for their daughter. Many, of course, have done just that and this kind of approach has proven a barrier to entry for young girls. Other clubs, seeing the bigger picture and the benefits which accrue to the girls and also the clubs, have adopted the approach now being recommended - charging one fee for both sexes. Some have taken the highest fee of the three, and that varies depending on circumstances such as age and the number of teams, and used that as its membership fee; others have set a fee in the mid-range and opted to subsidise the higher cost of registering girls teams. This is the kind of progressive stance all clubs should now be looking at.
Another crucial point is that there should be fair allocation of playing facilities. This is included among the guidelines but again is totally dependent on the goodwill of clubs. In some areas, there is a happy marriage when it comes to making pitches available on an equal basis to teams but, sadly, the widespread experience for those involved in the women's codes is that they are regularly turfed off a pitch at the last minute to make way for their male counterparts. It should not take a rule to be introduced - and we are a long way from that happening - for this to change.
The third major bugbear for ladies football and camogie is finances and fundraising. Although they make an enormous contribution to the club in so many ways, including financially, this is not always reciprocated.
In last week's document published by the three associations, there is particular emphasis on this. "Like any family, there must be give and take. Some teams will incur greater team preparation costs than others. Registration fees in some codes will be higher than others. However, the experience of One Clubs is that with a co-ordinated approach to fundraising, the involvement of all the family and community provides a greater pie to be shared. It is the role of the club executive to set the tone to ensure that this is done in an equitable fashion."
So, it's certainly important to acknowledge this step forward. But ultimately, the GAA, the LGFA and the Camogie Association will have to bite the bullet and formally merge. It makes no sense that Gaelic football and hurling have three different ruling bodies, with different rules and, in ways, a different ethos. Of course there will be resistance in some quarters but the idea that there continues to be segregation on gender grounds in Gaelic games should not sit well with anyone. Hopefully last week's action will be the start of something even more meaningful.
Sunday Indo Sport