Thursday 23 November 2017

Congress keeps oligarchs in check

GAA director-general Páraic Duffy Photo: Sportsfile
GAA director-general Páraic Duffy Photo: Sportsfile
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

There was a time when pundits were very fond of saying that Ireland Inc should be run by our invincible all-knowing business class. Seán Quinn would be mentioned, Tony O'Reilly, maybe Seánie FitzPatrick and Seán Dunne. These days they're down to Michael O'Leary.

But I'm sure it won't be long before we're once again hearing suggestions that we adopt some kind of list system for the election so that our betters may be elevated to the Dáil without having to go through the hassle of actually seeking votes from plebs like myself and yourself.

The general election wasn't the only exercise in democracy taking place this weekend. We also had the GAA's Congress in Carlow. In the run-up we had the annual slew of articles which mirror the elitist arguments made about our political system and usually employ some variation on the phrase, 'Congress is an unwieldy way of making GAA policy'.

What they mean by this is that Congress gives too many people a say in the way the GAA is run and that the Association would be better off if all the important decisions were taken by a handful of people at the top and everyone else just did what they were told. This is of course a profoundly undemocratic way of going about things. Not least because clubs already feel that the GAA suffers not from a surfeit of democracy but a lack of it. Already convinced their concerns are not being heard at the top level, they're advised by pundits that they'd be better off if they had no say at all.

Journalists are peculiarly receptive to the notion of little oligarchies because as a profession we're prone to thinking we know the solution to everything.

You may have noticed this last night on TV as many of our number declared that they'd always known this would happen even though they hadn't actually predicted the 'this' in question before it happened. In reality, if we were all that clever we wouldn't be journalists.

That's why we should be open to the idea that it's not the best thing for the GAA if policy is made by a handful of people employed at Croke Park and a few others who get picked to be on working parties, committees or think tanks.

Because, for example, when the decision was taken to open up Croke Park to soccer and rugby, probably the most far-sighted and popular decision made by the GAA in modern times, it didn't come from the hierarchy. It came from the clubs and through them to the counties and eventually to Congress.

Then GAA president Seán Kelly got a lot of credit for the decision but he was, to a certain extent, swept along by the tide that came from below. Elsewhere, the oligarchy ran scared of the decision to the extent that the original motions on the matter were all ruled out of order.

Last year motions looking for an end to the GAA's deal with Sky were also killed before they could reach a vote at Congress. The Sky deal was presented to GAA members as a fait accompli along with assurances from Páraic Duffy et al that it 'wasn't about the money'. This week in the lead-up to Congress it turned out that it was all about the money as delegates were warned that voting down the Sky deal would cost the GAA €15m. And all the brave talk about finding a huge world audience for Gaelic games which accompanied the original deal has now dwindled miserably down to talk of Sky being used merely as a bargaining counter to screw more money out of RTé.

However the Sky vote went, these climb-downs and backtracks don't say much for the supposedly superior decision-making ability of the GAA's top brass. Which is why they should stop complaining that Congress is getting in their way. Congress remains the only check the grassroots have on the power of those who believe they know what is best for them. Like any form of democracy, it's imperfect. But it's better than dictatorship.

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