Sunday 17 December 2017

An out of touch stance almost left GAA on sidelines

Tommy Conlon

G iven the week that was in it, with all the happy talk of healing and reconciliation, it probably doesn't do to mention the war.

But watching the Queen of England and the Duke of Edinburgh make their tour of Croke Park on Wednesday, it crossed my mind on more than one occasion.

There were more immediate concerns too. The Nickey Brennan incident was pure cultural cringe. Surely he must've known that you don't lay a hand on the Queen? He was after all a GAA president in his time and presumably he'd become acquainted with some bit of protocol? But no: there he was with his hand on her elbow, no regard at all for her personal space, like it was just another roast beef dinner dance.

Soon as we saw it we jumped channels from RTE to the live coverage on Sky News and sure enough, they'd spotted the gaffe. They were forgiving; they put it down to the good humour and hospitality of the occasion. They perhaps saw it as a part of that character trait which visitors tend to attribute to the Irish, and which the novelist DBC Pierre once described perfectly as our "incorrigible informality".

Asked later if he was aware he'd broken protocol, Brennan replied: "No -- the first I've heard of it." Sigh. There's always one.

The video presentation, echoing out across the empty stadium, didn't really work. It was no substitute for the real thing. It was a bit of a lost opportunity, although they could hardly have laid on a full-scale game either. But one would've thought that they could have staged a five- or seven-minute sequence of hurling drills. Ten top hurlers, say, performing a well-choreographed routine to introduce a global audience to the speed and skills of the game. That would've been a winner.

Christy Cooney's speech was skilfully written. It smoothly navigated some delicate terrain. The room was packed with members of the GAA's committee class, up to and including a host of former presidents. Among them was Seán Kelly MEP. The cameras picked him out a couple of times in what seemed like a pointed exercise. For it was Kelly, perhaps more than anyone, who'd made this day possible.

Which brings us back to the war: one wondered how he felt when the current president stated in his speech that the GAA "has consistently embodied the mood of the nation, culturally, socially and politically." It's a bold statement but insofar as any one organisation can claim to embody the mood of this nation, the GAA probably comes closer than any other. If the parish unit is the nucleus of the national body, then the GAA's presence in virtually every parish puts it right at the core too; the people and the GAA therefore move more or less in lockstep together. As the former changes, so does the latter, essentially because they are one and the same.

This ability to adapt and evolve has almost always been driven from the bottom up, not the top down. The GAA's senior management has traditionally reacted to the changing mood rather than itself leading the way. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it means that by and large they have bided their time and tested the ground fully before making the required changes in policy. Frequently they only finally react after matters have become badly divisive, damaging the GAA's image and generating the usual quota of controversy and public hostility along the way. But in the end they get there and the storm blows over.

When it came to the baleful subject of Rule 42, however, senior figures went a step too far. The usual conservatism in the face of change mutated into resistance; into defiance of the very mood of the nation which Cooney trumpeted last Wednesday.

It's worth remembering that ten years ago, delegates at annual congress came within two votes of opening up Croke Park to soccer and rugby. The mood for change was palpably there. And yet for the next four years a coterie of the GAA's most powerful officials, within Croke Park and without, stem the push for change. And, in a supreme irony, the man who welcomed the Queen last week was one of them. They had the support of the Northern Ireland

counties. Between the lot of them they wanted to bend the rest of the GAA membership to their view of the world.

That's what Seán Kelly was up against when he moved, as president, to repeal Rule 42. Repeated attempts were made, albeit not by Cooney, to undermine his authority. Had they succeeded, they would have brought shame on the people they purported to represent.

Had they succeeded, the GAA last week would have been out there on the margins, just another dog in the manger, along with all the other miserable malcontents, while the rest of the nation celebrated a truly uplifting few days in its history. Cooney addressed the Queen in terms that were fittingly generous. "Your presence," he stated, "does honour to our Association, to its special place in Irish life, and to its hundreds of thousands of members."

Well said. It's just a pity those hundreds of thousands of members weren't treated with the same honour by some of their own leaders who, if they'd won that particular war, would've ensured that the Queen would never have set foot in Croke Park.

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