The GAA’s policy on inter-county training brought me right back to the early ’80s. It also made me think of condoms.
Back then politicians were getting conniptions about contraception. A Supreme Court ruling meant they had to legislate for their availability but nobody was comfortable about doing so in case they’d be accused of being in favour of sex.
This would have been a very dangerous position to take given that at the time Holy Joes, if not in the majority, certainly had the power to bend the majority to their will.
So we got Charlie Haughey’s 1979 Bill which said you could get condoms if a doctor wrote a prescription saying they’d be used for bona fide family planning purposes, presumably within marriage.
There was a kind of nod and wink acceptance that this law wasn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. The guards were unlikely to burst in on you mid-coitus to check if you were using condoms and if so ask where you’d got them.
Plenty of doctors wrote prescriptions for people with no rings on their fingers.
But one doctor in Kildare got fed up with all this. Dr Andrew Rynne thought it was nonsense for his profession to be writing prescriptions for pieces of rubber and acting as moral watchdogs. So in September 1982 he turned himself in.
I can’t deny it, he said, I provided a lad with 10 johnnies and I knew well he wasn’t married. It’s a fair cop guv. He may have phrased it a bit more elegantly than that.
The state took Dr Rynne to Naas District Court and he was fined £500. But his bold gesture embarrassed our politicians sufficiently to play a major part in ensuring that within a few years Ireland got family planning legislation actually suited to a rational modern state.
Rynne did the country a great service. Because Haughey’s Bill was based on piety rather than reality. And passing laws you have no intention of enforcing merely fuels cynicism and makes people dishonest with themselves and others.
That’s why my heart sank last week when I heard GAA president John Horan say that while the GAA have banned county teams from training till September 14 they wouldn’t be punishing anyone who breaks the rule.
“We’d like people to call them out,” he said, thus revealing that this rule too was motivated by the ‘never let it be said’ impulse.
GAA ard-stiúrthóir Tom Ryan said that given this year’s upheaval this wasn’t a good time to go imposing sanctions. I saw his point and recognised the decent impulse behind it. But if you don’t want to punish people for breaking rules, don’t make them in the first place.
Because when you shilly-shally like this, you end up with the kind of double-talk which characterised the response of not just the GAA authorities but of GPA chairman Paul Flynn who called on counties to both observe the ban and ensure their players were covered by the GAA injury scheme while training during the time it covers.
The GAA shouldn’t have asked people to ‘call out’ county teams for breaching regulations. The days of vigilance committees within the Association are over. This was a job for Croke Park and the county boards.
Croke Park’s ambivalence, with its suggestion that the rule had been made simply to take the bad look off things, was an insult to the intelligence of the Association’s members. But this particular insult proved to be a bridge too far.
It was not Horan’s softly, softly approach but Offaly County Board chairman Michael Duignan’s scathing attack on inter-county teams ignoring the ban which struck a chord with the grassroots.
By Friday, the GAA had performed a volte-face, vowing to punish counties which broke this rule, and even suggesting expulsion from the championship as the ultimate sanction.
This was extraordinary stuff because in recent years Croke Park’s preferred response to grassroots disquiet has been to ignore it completely. It’s unprecedented to see them cave so quickly and completely.
Inter-county managers have finally overplayed their hand to a degree which could not be ignored.
Because if they can’t give clubs sufficient space to enjoy unhindered access to their players in this of all years, they really have no intention of ever allowing a reasonable balance between club and county activity.
Those who say that the needs of inter-county teams should outweigh those of clubs because the former’s games bring in the most money are missing the point.
‘They’re the boys with the money so they can do what they like’ is a very Celtic Tiger era argument. It’s like something you’d have heard in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races.
And it seems extremely old-fashioned at a time when the mainstream of Irish society has moved towards a more egalitarian outlook.
One of the GAA’s great strengths has always been its recognition that there are more important things in life than money.
It would be incredibly short-sighted to abandon that belief just as the general public is coming to the same conclusion.
Will last week’s revolt be significant in the same way that the grassroots movement in favour of opening up Croke Park was? We shall see.
Because it’s one thing to say that you’ll impose penalties on those who break the rules and quite another to go through with the threat.
Many people suspect Hell will freeze over before a major county is punished for breaking this or any of the other GAA rules honoured more in the breach than the observance.
But at the very least ordinary GAA members have recovered their honour by refusing to be treated like fools.
The GAA’s top brass ended up being the ones who got called out. The Irish Solution To An Irish Problem turned out to be just as foolish as Charlie Haughey’s was back in the ’80s.
It was a bad week for Croke Park but it was a very good week for the GAA.