Thursday 23 November 2017

Joe Brolly: We have to take more care in disciplinary cases - a young player lived a nightmare last week

‘If this finding had stood, how was Matt Fitzpatrick ever going to get a full-time teaching job?’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘If this finding had stood, how was Matt Fitzpatrick ever going to get a full-time teaching job?’ Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

The CCCC is the GAA's prosecution service. I call them 'Parking Pataweyo'.

Parking Pataweyo is Harry Enfield's ultra-competitive, petty, unsympathetic parking inspector. When we first meet Pataweyo, he is hiding behind a wall outside the front gates of a nursery school at 9.0am. As parents park on the yellow line to walk their toddler the few feet to the school door, Pataweyo leaps from behind the wall, sprints to their cars, slaps tickets on them, then races back to his hiding place, before giving the thumbs up to the camera.

In a later scene, we see Parking Pataweyo ticketing the windscreen of a workman's van, as the workman walks back to the van from the shop where he has just got change for the meter. The workman explains this, and shows him the change. Parking Pataweyo smiles sympathetically and explains he is merely doing his job. The enraged workman says, "I'm going to f***ing appeal this." Parking Pataweyo again smiles sympathetically and offers to explain the appeal process to the workman. The man is taken aback and calms down. Parking Pataweyo asks him to remove his hard hat. Then asks him to face the wall. Then instructs him to start banging his head against it.

The latest victim of Parking Pataweyo and the Central Hearings Committee was Antrim's Matt Fitzpatrick. Matt is studying to be a teacher. I have known him for years. He is a popular St John's Belfast clubman, helping out with underage teams and all the rest of it. This year, he is on his teaching placement at La Salle College in the city, a bustling GAA hub. But Pataweyo is not interested in such matters.

Here are the facts. The CCCC cited an Armagh player for an unrelated incident arising out of the Armagh v Antrim league game. Armagh sent in a video clip in an attempt to exonerate him. But Pataweyo watches everything. He spotted a different incident which he somehow interpreted as "a strike" by an Antrim player.

This short, 12-second clip - posted now on independent.ie - shows the referee getting ready to hop the ball. A number of players from both teams are gathered around him in the normal fashion, jostling for position. The footage is fuzzy and no facial features are identifiable. A big looking player in an Armagh jersey is using his left arm to hold back a smaller Antrim player. They jostle and jockey to get in front of each other but the smaller man ends up behind. He then appears to push the bigger player in the back. It is not possible to say whether a hand or arm was used.

The Armagh player moves forward slightly, then the players face each other and seem to exchange words. The clip ends. Watch it for yourself. Pataweyo sniffs blood. He sends the clip to the Antrim County Board and asks them if they can identify the player. The county secretary subsequently has a WhatsApp exchange with a member of the senior management team. Here is the full conversation between them (this was disclosed to the CCCC and CHC at Matt's hearing):

Secretary: Ring me asap. Player ringed.

Coach: It's hard to see who it is, it actually looks like Conor Murray

Secretary: I thought that too.

Later, the Antrim secretary (you couldn't make this stuff up) sent a text and then an email to the CCCC opining that it was Matt Fitzpatrick. So, Matt was cited for striking and a one-match ban was proposed. He asked for a hearing.

At the hearing, there was no evidence presented that the person in the footage was Matt. It was impossible to tell from the footage who it was. So the charge was - as Liam Keane, chairman of the CHC, described it on Off The Ball yesterday - struck out. Notwithstanding there is no rule that permits the same case to be brought twice, that is precisely what happened. The following week, the player was brought back for a second hearing into the same offence. This time, there was an email from the Antrim secretary saying it was Matt. In spite of the fact the player was in front of the CHC, they viewed the footage, they could not identify him. Matt said it wasn't him and he couldn't remember any such incident.

Since the footage was so poor, the CHC dismissed the case (again). This time it was marked "not proven". The following day, the CCCC say they watched, for the first time, the full unedited footage. Turns out they had it in their possession a full fortnight (April 24) before the hearing where Matt was exonerated (May 5). This extended footage clearly showed the person was number 12, since it tracked him from a moment earlier when his back was turned.

The CCCC sent the footage to CHC. CHC called the player back on Monday and asked if having watched it he now accepted it must be him. He said yes, as he was number 12. He said he couldn't remember the incident and wasn't misleading anybody. They banned him for 48 weeks for perjuring himself before a GAA hearing.

Of course, had the CCCC disclosed that footage to the player when they received it, the player would have accepted it was him and the issue would then have been whether there was clear evidence of a strike. A highly suspicious feature of the case was that twice in the course of the hearing where Matt was exonerated of striking, the CCCC warned him that the offence of deliberately giving false evidence carried a 48-week ban. Why did they do that? Had they already watched the footage? If so, it was entrapment. If they hadn't, why did they say that? And why did they first watch that extended footage only when the case was over? It makes no sense. In my appeal grounds, I set all of this out and asked a series of questions for the CCCC to answer. Now that there will be no DRA hearing, those questions will remain - at least for the moment - unanswered.

The morning after the 48-week ban was imposed, for the first time, the Antrim boys rang me. When they sent me the clip that morning I rang them to say they must have sent me the wrong one. "No Joe," said big Frankie Fitzsimmons, "that's the clip." "Where's the strike?" I asked. "Search me Joe." I met them that evening out at the Dunsilly Hotel, with a friend of mine John McKenna, who is a leading expert on administrative law. "Audi alteram partem," I said as I arrived. McKenna smiled.

There were so many abuses of power and breaches of natural justice in this case that I told them quickly not to be concerned. Whatever happened, the DRA would overturn it. Then, I said, "Now gentlemen, on the subject of my fee." I know all the lads and could see they were taken aback. "It's a set fee for cases like this. I need to be paid in advance. Fair enough?" They swallowed a bit. "Fair enough," said Big Frankie. "One pint of Guinness." "Seriously?" "Seriously." They brought me the pint. As I sipped it, I overheard Big Frank whispering to Gearoid Adams, "Thank fuck for that". Gearoid whispered back, "You may get that other boy a pint quickly."

I cannot appear until the DRA stage, so although I drafted the appeal submissions which were circulated to the panel at the Central Appeals Committee (CAC) I cannot be in the room. Thankfully the CAC put a stop to the travesty before it got any further.

When he was banned for the 48 weeks for the grave offence of deliberately lying, a finding which wasn't open to the CHC since it wasn't possible to say who the player was from the original clip, and the incident was so trivial, it made front page news in the papers. The Irish News, The Belfast Telegraph, the TV news, all carried the story of this trainee teacher who had been banned for deliberately lying to a GAA committee. If this finding had stood, how was he ever going to get a full-time teaching job? "That's the lad who got banned for a year for perjury. Is that the sort of boy we want teaching our kids?"

You know what one of the CCCC members said to me when I rang him on Tuesday morning to find out what exactly had happened? He said: "Joe, I came into work with a heavy heart this morning at the thought of the consequences of this for that young man."

Parking Pataweyo, smiling sympathetically, explaining he is only doing his job.

Matt's mum Pauline texted me throughout the week, giving me an insight into the ordeal they were going through. Here is one of her texts verbatim: 'Joe. I simply want to articulate the impact on Matthew of this nightmare in terms of his mental health and having to watch that as parents. If you are raising the issue please get that message across. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine such a horrible process would ensue.'

When I spoke to her after he was cleared she was very emotional. Relieved, but very angry. I understand the family are now seeking legal advice.

The CCCC and the lower GAA courts have been bringing the system into disrepute now for years and enraging its victims, their clubs and counties. In the normal civil law, the prosecution service first of all decides whether it is in the general public interest to prosecute. The next question is whether it is in the interests of justice? Next, whether - even if technically an offence may have been committed - the offence is serious enough to be prosecuted. Is it trivial? None of these things happen in our games.

The Lamh Dearg junior hurlers won the Ulster championship this year. What a day for this small club! It soon spoiled. The referee had sent two players off - one from each side - with a few minutes to go. There was then some pulling and jostling. The Lamh Dearg manager shouts: "Stay out of it lads, game's over."

The final whistle went shortly afterwards, hands were shaken. The Belfast men celebrated the night away, excited at the prospect of playing the Kilkenny champions in the All-Ireland semi-final. Their excitement was short-lived.

Parking Pataweyo had been hiding behind a wall. He watched the footage very carefully, and identified six Lamh Dearg players who he cited for the nebulous offence of "contributing to a melee". They pleaded their cases. I was sent the footage to review. They are pulling people off people, shouldering a bit, shepherding their own players away. No, said the CHC, they are contributing to a melee. They appealed to the CAC. One player gave evidence - supported by the footage - that he was simply pulling a Donegal player off his brother. He would have been better taking off his hat, standing close to a wall and begin banging his head off it. The result? You know the result. This tiny hurling club lost six first-team players for the All-Ireland semi-final.

"Nemo iudex in causa sua", as we say in Dungiven.

Sunday Independent

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