Friday 23 March 2018

Joe Brolly: Any cross-examiner would have a field day with the Connolly case - what has happened is very suspicious

In the eye of a media storm: Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile
In the eye of a media storm: Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

As Mrs Merton might have asked, why on earth would Kerry fanatic Pat Spillane want Dublin's star forward banned for the championship?

The linesman and referee took no action in relation to last week's incident in Carlow involving Diarmuid Connolly at the time. They didn't even pause to consult. The linesman Ciaran Brannigan (also the standby referee for the game) didn't so much as blink. When he was touched for a split second, he didn't say a word. His facial expression did not alter. He was holding up the white flag signalling the direction of the sideline at that second, and he continued to hold up the white flag. The referee took no heed of it either.

Not every touch on an official constitutes the offence of physical interference. The referee and his official, like any judge, have a margin of discretion. In this instance, they clearly exercised it in favour of the player. The standby referee can only have decided the touch was a split-second one, was trivial, and was not worthy of a card. This is the officials' prerogative. The game continued. At the end, hands were shaken. As the Dublin bus left Portlaoise an hour after the final whistle, there wasn't a word about it.

Not so fast. Diarmuid Connolly has been in the eye of a media storm for the last week. The pressure has been building around him. A black card for him has become an event of national importance. It is worth noting that the conduct of the three Carlow players, who aggressively grabbed and held him, bumped and bored and scrabbed at him, was ignored, both by the officials at the time and by the media afterwards.

Connolly, who had been systematically targeted during the game, held his arms in the air with his hands outstretched while he was being assaulted, clearly demonstrating to the officials that he was not taking any part in the melee. It was an example of tremendous restraint in the face of provocation. The touching of the sideline official as he passed him was in that context. Had it been, for example, Colm Cooper, would we have reacted with such outrage?

I can just hear Pat in The Sunday Game studio saying: "We can clearly see when we slow down the footage that Gooch is being assaulted by all three Carlow lads. You can see the elbow going in there. Now the knee. He is one of our most skilful players and surely deserves better than this from the officials. After all, they are standing right beside the incident. Is it any wonder our officials have such little credibility?"

Gooch would have our sympathy. The media and wider GAA public would say, "it was a trivial touch, he was clearly just frustrated at being manhandled in this way." Would Gooch have been banned?

The reality is that watching it at normal speed there is nothing to the incident. Which is clearly what both the official and referee thought at the time. They are the people best placed to make that determination, and they decided to take no action. The only explanation I have heard for this from the mob is that perhaps the officials felt under pressure not to act because it was Diarmuid Connolly and they feared him. As the sardonic Lord Justice McCollum QC was wont to say to earnest young counsel who appeared before him in Belfast High Court: "Is that your best point?"

It was only some time after the final whistle that the plot thickened. By that stage, the TV and media furore was in full swing. Slow-mo footage was doing the rounds and the moral outrage mob were reaching for the pitchforks. Only problem was that the referee and sideline official had taken no action.

It is a cardinal principle of the GAA's rule book that it is for the referee and match officials to control what happens on the field of play. It is only when they miss something that the CCCC can act. Basically, it is not for the CCCC to re-referee the game. The GAA's dreaded prosecution service can only act where the referee confirms that the match officials did not 'adjudicate' on the incident. Adjudication isn't defined in the rules, but it clearly includes a situation where the officials are fully aware of an incident yet decide not to take action.

In Diarmuid Connolly's case, the match official felt and saw the touch. The referee was standing beside him, seemingly watching the incident. Both are fully fledged inter-county referees on the elite championship panel, so the GAA public are entitled to assume they know the rules and the punishment.

But with the game over and no sanction having been applied, Connolly was in the clear. Since no card was administered at the time, it was hard to see how the incident might end up in the referee's report. And if it wasn't in the referee's report, the CCCC would have been stepping onto a legal minefield if they prosecuted.

What happened next, in the circumstances, is highly suspicious. The 'additional notes' column of the referee's report describes a 'debrief' that allegedly took place after the game between the referee and standby referee, where the standby referee informed him that during the game the Dublin number 11 had pushed him.

I am not alleging any specific wrongdoing, as I do not know precisely what transpired in the period between the final whistle and the referee's report being submitted. I am merely pointing out that the sequence of events gives rise to questions. After all, there must be public confidence in the system. Any cross-examiner would have a field day with this.

Why did the standby referee not deal with it at the time? Why did he not say to the referee (who was standing beside him), "Dublin number 11 has just laid a hand on me, it's a red card". How did the referee not see it himself? How could it be that the linesman only realised after the game that an offence had occurred? After all, there was a natural break in the play as the incident unfolded. There was a delay before the sideline was taken. All the protagonists were on the spot. It was an unmistakeable event.

So, why didn't the officials react? When did the linesman recall the incident? When did he first form the view that Connolly's conduct crossed the line? Why was it only discussed for the first time after the game was over? When exactly was it discussed? Were the officials in contact with anyone else about the issue prior to the allegation ending up in the referee's report? Had they been made aware of the media furore?

The CCCC's - and the mob's - problem was solved with the inclusion of the 'additional notes' in the referee's report. The CCCC were free to prosecute. The rule book makes the referee's report sacrosanct. As soon as the offence had been referred to in that report, even though no card was administered at the time, the steel shutters came down and Connolly was doomed. Rule 7(3) (vi) says: "A referee's report, including any clarification, shall be presumed to be correct in all factual matters and may only be rebutted where unedited video or other compelling evidence contradicts it."

Paragraph (vii) says: "A referee or other official shall not be required to give oral evidence or to appear for cross-examination." Paragraph (viii) says that only the Hearings Committee can, "in its sole discretion", seek clarification of any matters in the referee's report. Easier for Connolly to get a one-on-one interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un than to get answers from the match officials.

Connolly laid his hand on the official. This qualifies - at the officials' discretion - as "minor physical interference". The evidence of the contact is crystal clear. In the referee's report, and in the footage.

Don't get me wrong. Whatever the provocation Connolly was under - and it was considerable - there is no justification for touching a match official in a way that goes beyond the confines of, for example, attracting his attention. If the referee had given a red card at the time, I would have no problem with that. But what actually happened threatens to bring the GAA's disciplinary system further into disrepute.

Connolly will be eligible for the All-Ireland semi-final, so he won't miss anything. Up until then, most of the games are like a Theresa May rally. The crowd gets a little excited before the throw-in, but all the life is soon sucked out of them.

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