Only chaos can follow if justice is not seen to be done
One of the great fears in the wider GAA community is the idea of elitism becoming firmly established as a principle. Yes, it's there - see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and all that - but it is not welcome.
That was at the core of the resistance to the GPA in its early years. The idea that an association to protect the interests of a so-called elite group within the GAA rankled with the grassroots (and who's to say there isn't still a hang-up on that point?) and any time there is a suggestion of elitism it will provoke a similar response.
And it is this very point which is at the heart of the DRA's decision to quash the one-match ban imposed on Diarmuid Connolly after he was sent off in Dublin's drawn All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo last month. The decision meant Connolly was free to participate in the replay six days later and angered a lot of people. It baffled them too. The publication last week of the DRA's full report has done little to change that.
The DRA panel for the hearing comprised of former Supreme Court judge Hugh O'Flaherty and solicitors David Nohilly and Brian Rennick. We now know that the decision to quash the suspension, even though the sending-off by referee Joe McQuillan was not overturned, was a two-to-one decision, with Rennick as the dissenting voice.
Ultimately, the reasoning behind the decision - as revealed in the report - is as troubling as the decision itself. There is a lot of technical detail but it is very difficult to see how O'Flaherty and Nohilly arrived at the point where they felt it was justifiable to quash the suspension.
The Central Hearings Committee (CHC) was Connolly's first port of call and having heard the case a one-match ban - which is the recommended sanction for a player sent off for striking with the hand or fist, a Category III offence - was imposed. Connolly's appeal to the Central Appeals Commitee (CAC) failed.
In a lengthy outline of his opposition to the DRA's decision to find in Connolly's favour, Rennick is unequivocal: "There are no special circumstances in this case which merit a direction that no further action be taken. That is particularly so based on the finding of the CHC, the CAC, and a finding which has not been interfered with by the DRA that the infraction, as alleged, did in fact occur." In other words, that Connolly did strike Lee Keegan as the referee reported. Rennick continues: "The consequence of such a direction in a case such as this is that the claimant [Connolly] having committed a Cat III infraction is unpunished. That in my view is an unjustifiable precedent to set in the context of a disciplinary process."
But the most troubling aspect of the decision is that the nature of the game that Connolly would miss appears to have been a factor in reaching it. This flies in the face of the ethos of the GAA and its principles of fairness and equality. In theory, there is no distinction between the various levels of competition in the sense that the same codes and rules apply.
This does not appear to be a view shared by O'Flaherty and Nohilly, who write: "In this instance, the consequence for the claimant was suspension from an All-Ireland semi-final (replay) match. This has to be construed as a serious sanction and therefore a higher standard is required of the disciplinary bodies in circumstances such as this."
If this is to be held up now as a precedent, then only chaos can follow. Again, Rennick does not hold back. "I do not subscribe to that view as to do so would be to draw a clear distinction as and between those who play our games at a local level and those elite players who play at the highest level of inter-county competition. For any player to play in a county final or semi-final in whatever division or at whatever age level is just as important to that player as it is for an elite player to play at the highest level of inter-county competition. The club player deserves no less a standard in respect of the application of the rules and the principles of natural and constitutional justice."
Those intricately involved in implementing the GAA's disciplinary codes at all levels will presumably have been keen to know the reasoning behind the decision but if they are to find any comfort in it, then it will be via Rennick's comments. A properly functioning disciplinary system cannot take account of what games a player will miss if suspended. All that can be of interest are, firstly, the facts of the matter - that the player committed the offence accused of, and, secondly, that fair procedures are applied and the rules of the sporting association were followed. The DRA's findings on both these points in this case are very much open to challenge.
The DRA is 10 years in existence and although often publicly derided the truth is that it has largely served its purpose. The procession to the courts in search of injunctions and judicial reviews has been halted and there is now a bank of decisions which guide and inform new cases. Along with a rule book which has been rewritten to iron out unintended escape hatches and loopholes, the GAA's disciplinary system is considerably better now than it was a decade ago. This latest decision, though, is a setback to the DRA's credibility and has led to calls for another upheaval. It is possible, however, that Rennick's robust opposition will be enough to weaken future attempts to use the Connolly decision as a precedent.
Rennick states there had been no failures on the part of the CHC and CAC in how they handled Connolly's case: "It is my view that the claimant in this instance was afforded fair procedures, there being no misapplication of any of the rules complained of and there being no breach of accepted principles of fair procedures, natural and constitutional justice, such as would entitle this Tribunal to interfere with any of the decisions made."
He continues: "I strenuously disagree therefore with the majority decision which finds that there was a significant impairment of the rights of the claimant, which was disproportionate, irrational and unfair. I am further of the view that the decision and reasons of the majority in this case is fundamentally wrong in that it is in fact based on reasoning the arguments which were not canvassed by the claimant at all and as such are in fact the construct of the majority in circumstances where in fact the Tribunal did not find in favour of the claimant in respect of 10 of the 11 Grounds of Claim as submitted. The single Ground of Claim on which the majority have found in favour of the claimant is firstly a Ground that should not have been considered by the Tribunal as it had not in fact been advanced before the CHC."
No sporting organisation can afford to have either doubt or, worse, scorn, poured on its disciplinary system. It must maintain its credibility. The view within the GAA seems to be that there shouldn't be a knee-jerk reaction. The feeling is that the system works, that cases are dealt with in a timely and efficient manner. (Connolly's hearing and two appeals were all heard within five days of his dismissal.) Calls for an overhaul of the Association's entire disciplinary process will be resisted for now but there is a recognition that, just as in any walk of life, justice has to be seen to be done, and in this instance it wasn't.
Sunday Indo Sport