Friday 15 December 2017

Lack of witnesses may frustrate Ulster's bid to punish the racists

So much for the season of goodwill. Just as December's arrival left the GAA preparing to activate its landing gear for a smooth touchdown at the end of another hectic season, the dear old Association flew straight into heavy turbulence.

It has, over the years, grown accustomed to winter storms, whether whipped up by player strikes, managerial upheavals, bust-ups at club games or some other unforeseen glitch that took a mischievous hand to the workings.

They all looked serious at the time but, in hindsight, they actually weren't, having been caused mostly by intransigence, bad communication, sloppy administration or good old-fashioned rule-breaking. In all cases, they were relatively easy to solve, once the intense early heat had cooled.

Allegations of racism, as in the case of Crossmaglen's Aaron Cunningham and his claims that he was racially abused during the Ulster club football final against Kilcoo, are altogether different. This takes the GAA into a territory which society as a whole – both in Ireland and internationally – has found difficult to negotiate.

Cunningham's distress after Crossmaglen's latest triumph was so evident that nobody could doubt the authenticity of his allegations. After all, why would anybody invent false claims of racial abuse?

However, unless there's evidence to support Cunningham's claim, how can the Ulster Council take any action? Even then, it would have to come from reliable observers and, with due respect to everyone who was inside the pitch enclosure last Sunday, the only independent witnesses were the match officials. Unless they can help the Ulster Council with their investigation, it's difficult to know how it can make much progress.

Cunningham, his family and Crossmaglen are understandably upset by the affair, but there are victims in Kilcoo too, on the grounds of shared responsibility. The allegations against them centre essentially on one or two players, leaving the rest of the squad innocent. However, if the case eventually falls due to lack of evidence, all the Kilcoo players will be deemed guilty by association. In effect, their good name will be impugned, despite having done nothing wrong.

It's another example of the pernicious nature of racism which, in many cases, is down more to stupidity than malice. Even Dublin's Jason Sherlock, who had been a victim of taunting during his playing days, acknowledged that. "It's not necessarily that they're racist, it's just a lack of knowledge and ignorance," he said.

However, ignorance is no excuse, so the GAA – no more than any other sporting organisation or civil agency – can't tolerate it being used as an excuse for belittling people because of the colour of their skin. In recent times, Wexford have handed down suspensions arising from racism charges and no doubt others will do the same if the case is proven. However, in instances where there's insufficient evidence to proceed, the wrongdoers win.

Cunningham's father, Joey – himself a victim of racial abuse when playing soccer in the 1980s – said he hoped that the GAA don't sweep his son's case "under the carpet."

The Ulster Council won't but they are also bound by the rules of natural justice, specifically that no punishment can be meted out without independent evidence that an offence took place.

Away from the Cunningham case, the GAA are looking at the broader problem. There's certainly no reason why they can't substantially increase the suspension for anybody found guilty of making racist remarks, something that's likely to happen at Congress next April when delegates will get an opportunity to show just how seriously they are taking the latest threat to the GAA's good name.

President Liam O'Neill has spoken of the need to widen the debate so that all forms of verbal abuse are legislated for. About time too, since there has been an unhealthy acceptance of 'trash talk' as part of the game.

Everyone knows that it's commonplace, yet when was the last time you saw a referee take any action against a loudmouth? Granted, much of it may be beyond earshot of officials, but surely it must have been picked up sometime, yet no action has been taken. It's time to end that and O'Neill has indicated that it's on his agenda.

Ultimately, though, responsibility for good behaviour rests with players themselves and on those in charge, whether at club or county level.

'Trash talk' has become accepted as "part of the game" but racism crosses a more serious line.

Rules and harsh sanctions can play a part in ending both, but nothing can ever be as successful as those in charge of teams making it perfectly clear that common decency will always take precedence over the desire to win, especially if it's fuelled by bile, bigotry or prejudice.

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