'Every time an illegal payment is made, a hole is bored in the amateur status'
Threat to amateur ethos still a major challenge while population shifts loom as long-term challenge for GAA
The mass population movement from west to east and from rural to urban is the single biggest single challenge facing the GAA into the future, according to director-general Páraic Duffy.
As a community-based 550,000-member organisation with clubs in virtually every parish, population spread is crucially important to the GAA and, with the trend very much towards cities and large towns, it's creating an uncertain environment.
"It's by far the biggest fear I have for the Association in the long term," says Duffy. "And the real concern for us is that we can't fix this on our own. Whatever issue - however difficult - that arises directly within the organisation can always be sorted out but we're facing something here that's beyond our control. That's what makes it so worrying."
The population shift is presenting two major problems for the GAA: placing rural clubs at risk and putting unsustainable pressure on bigger clubs, especially in Dublin, where many are at breaking point.
"The movement is very much from west to east and from country to town and city," adds Duffy. "That process is accelerating rapidly and will continue if, as a country, that's the way we intend to go. From a GAA perspective, the dangers are obvious. Will we lose clubs in rural areas? Will others have to amalgamate? What impact would that have on the club scene? Then you look at the effect it will have on places like Dublin and towns in the hinterland.
"The growth in Dublin has been fantastic but many of their clubs are now super-clubs, catering for massive numbers. It makes it very hard for them to cope. And if they want to expand, where will they get the land?
"The same goes for trying to set up new clubs. Are we going to have clubs in Dublin and the surrounding areas which can't cope with the numbers and clubs in the country who don't have the numbers to field teams?
"This is a bigger issue than just sport but for us in the GAA, it's very important since the Association has always been based on local community.
Rural Ireland is struggling badly and that's bad for us since we've always functioned better in rural than urban areas. We do very well in urban areas too but if the population imbalance between east and west of the country continues, it's going to cause serious problems."
Duffy believes that rural decline is a problem that needs to be tackled by government, starting by challenging the perceived wisdom that the move to urban living is as unstoppable as it's inevitable.
The GAA's role is to muster all its power to influence thinking and make the implementation of a national policy on rural Ireland a top priority for governments.
"You wonder what the picture will be like in 50 years' time. This is about Ireland deciding what sort of country we should have, whether we want the vast majority of people living in the east, leaving many other parts of the country near-empty," he says.
"I cannot see how that's a good strategy. It would certainly be disastrous for the GAA."
Population imbalance has always been an issue for the GAA, leaving its competition structure based on inequality as bigger counties compete in the same championships and leagues as their smaller neighbours.
"There's nothing that can be done about that and nothing will change unless you move away from the inter-county model and I don't think anyone wants that," says Duffy.
He rejects claims that a disproportionate amount of funding goes to Dublin, pointing out that it's vitally important to support an area that caters for so many people.
"Apart from Dublin, we're trying to invest in counties with bigger populations like Kildare, Meath and various others but that does not mean we are neglecting the rest. Far from it," he says.
"Resources are important and we will provide as much as we can to all counties but whatever you do, population figures will always count over a period of time when it comes to how well county teams fare.
"A lot of our smaller counties do very well with the numbers they can pick from but they just don't have the volume of players that others do, which makes it very hard to compete on an ongoing basis. That's the reality."
While the GAA cannot solve problems related to geography and demographics, there's one major issue directly within its remit which remains a significant threat to future stability.
Indeed, it used to be one of the most controversial subjects but it's rarely mentioned any more because the problem has proved to be incapable of resolution.
Despite the apparent indifference, the issue of illegal payments to managers - and indeed to some players too - continues to lurk in the background, skilfully hidden from the prying eyes of the authorities.
So why is the GAA allowing the rules on amateurism to be undermined, despite various campaigns to eradicate the problem over the years?
"There's an issue there that we cannot control - it's as simple as that," explains Duffy. "If people outside the Association make an arrangement with a manager or player, it's impossible for us to act on it. We can only what we work off what we know for certain."
So is he concerned that the amateur rule is being flouted by people who know they can act with impunity?
"Of course I am but it's impossible to nail it," he says. "We have no problems passing rules in the GAA but sometimes we then turn a blind eye, which is unfortunate."
A reaffirmation of the GAA's stance on illegal payments was made a few years ago following a protracted examination of the options. Duffy produced a report but ultimately it all came down to one reality: illegal payments could only be stopped if all strands of the organisation applied the rules.
There's enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that while most GAA people oppose under-the-counter activity in principle, the practice is still quite common.
Duffy believes that illegal payments are not being made by county boards but accepts there's another dimension to the practice.
"We get all the county board accounts in here (Croke Park) and we check them. I'm satisfied that none are making illegal payments directly," he says. "But there is still a difficulty with people outside the GAA who may feel it's in the best interests of their county to pay someone to manage a team. We have no way of controlling that. Of course, that involves the connivance of people inside the GAA. They have to know it's going on. It's important to state that the vast majority of managers - at both club and county level - are doing it for free because they love the games.
That's how it should be for everyone but unfortunately it's not. It might be a small number, but even that is far too many. It's probably happening with some players too."
Duffy regards it as a very serious matter but admits that Croke Park's powers of investigation can only extend a certain distance into a shadowy world of financial rule-breaking.
"It's easy to say that Croke Park should do this or that, but ultimately you rely on the people elected in each county to run the association there. You expect them to apply the rules," he says.
"If they don't, then you have a real problem, one that will get bigger as time goes on. You can't proclaim a set of values and then act contrary to those and still retain credibility. That's the bottom line here.
"This is not just an issue at inter-county level. In fact, it's a lot worse with clubs, where there is a whole plethora of mercenaries who go around counties from one club to the next. We know what's going on, but try and get evidence and you hit a brick wall."
Duffy, now in his 10th year as director-general, fears that rapidly changing times are applying greater pressure to the GAA's amateur wall, making it all the more important to remain firm.
"We're trying to swim against the tide in a world where elite sport means professional sport," he says. "We are probably the only sporting organisation in the world that can attract the crowds we do and still remain amateur.
"Inevitably, there are going to be challenges while doing that. We're fighting in a sporting world where money is king.
"One way we can achieve that is by looking after our players properly and we're doing that to the very best of our ability. They must be looked after - their welfare is important. That's why when people crib about money going to the GPA, I don't accept it. It's done for very specific reasons and they do a good job."
He believes that the GAA's approach to what amateurism means is sensible as it allows players to capitalise on sponsorship and other commercial deals. The next tantalising step is into some form of pay-for-play, but Duffy insists that it can never be taken if the GAA is to survive and prosper.
He remains uncomfortable with the under-the-counter payment culture, fearing it could inflict serious damage.
"Every time an illegal payment is paid, a hole is bored in the amateur status. That is extremely damaging," he says.
"It's not good for an organisation to proclaim itself amateur and then breach the rule. If the Association believes that because of the amount of work involved, managers should be paid, then let it be discussed but openly and honestly, rather than say 'no' to payments and then go and make them anyway. You can't be hypocritical and remain credible. If people continue to turn a blind eye, it will be devastating for the Association.
"We will only survive as an amateur organisation if people genuinely buy into that ethos. You won't find anyone in the GAA who disagrees publicly with that, yet illegal payments are being made.
"Those who facilitate that should take a long hard look at themselves because they are damaging the very Association they claim to love."
Paraic Duffy on . . .
“One big change I think we will see is one organisation catering for hurling and football, camogie and ladies’ football. A lot of good work is going on towards tightening links at present.
“We’re moving towards having one organisation with all the sports operating under the same umbrella. It’s hard to know how long it will take but, all going well, it will happen. Everyone would benefit. It’s a natural development.”
“I still believe in it, but it needs to be implemented better. Refereeing standards have improved over the years but the black card rule has proved challenging for them. It’s really important that referees get it right more often this summer. Referees themselves will admit that they need to be more consistent.
“In fairness to them, the job is being made more difficult by players making it look as if they were deliberately pulled down. Some are trying to turn a foul into a black card offence by the way they fall, which makes it hard on referees. So players need to look at themselves too because if you get an opponent sent off on a black card by the way you fall, don’t forget that it can happen to you next time.
“Overall, the black card is a good idea – we have less fouls and more scores as a result of it.”
IMPACT OF SOCIAL MEDIA
“It’s sad to see what’s going on here. Obviously it’s an issue across all of society but from a GAA viewpoint, it’s disappointing to see players, managers, referees and anyone else in the public eye subjected to some awful vitriol.
“We get great coverage of our games in the traditional media but this is a new and unwelcome development. Getting hammered on social media is not what the GAA is about and is not the GAA I know. The level of antagonism aimed at players, referees, managers and others too is disturbing.”
RUGBY WORLD CUP
“If the bid is successful, it will be great for the country. I’m delighted the GAA is playing a part and it’s important for us that we are. This is a massive international event and if it comes here, everyone will gain.
“Of course it will give rugby here a big boost but that doesn’t mean the GAA suffers. I always believe that if we go about our business properly, kids will take up our games in huge numbers and continue playing as adults.
The Rugby World Cup would bring a number of benefits for us, including upgrading grounds. Also, it would give us a chance to showcase our organisation to people who may never have even heard of us.
“We have a great working relationship with the IRFU. They’re doing an excellent job with the bid, they’re so positive about the challenge. It really would be fantastic for the country if they are successful.”