Saturday 18 November 2017

Law of the land needs to be changed to protect players

Making it illegal for fans to enter pitch may be only way to eradicate problem

Louth supporters surround referee Martin Sludden after the final whistle in the Leinster final. Photo: Sportsfile
Louth supporters surround referee Martin Sludden after the final whistle in the Leinster final. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

During the court case last March that convicted two Louth supporters for attacking match referee Martin Sludden, Judge Bridget Reilly, in handing out €1,000 fines to both men and binding them to the peace for one year, made an interesting observation.

She would have liked to have banned them from pitches in the relevant counties, but wasn't sure if she had the powers to do so. Under the law of this land, one cannot be tried in court for unauthorised entry to a sports pitch unless a public order offence has taken place.

But with the spotlight back on the GAA at local level, it is an option the Association might feel is worth pursuing as a real and meaningful deterrent to the threat faced by both players and officials. Clearly the measures in place, heavy fines and maximum two-year suspensions, are not working sufficiently.

North of the border, the Northern Ireland Justice Act 2011 brought in legislation whereby entry to the field of play at certain games (two hours before the start and one hour after the finish), which fell under the remit of the relevant health and safety authorities, is now a criminal offence. The maximum punishment just for straying across the white lines is £1,000.

Queens University Professor of Law Jack Anderson, who specialises in sports law and has written extensively on the subject of indiscipline in the GAA over the last number of years, believes the preference should still be for the sport itself to deal with these matters decisively and quickly.

"As in all of this, the criminal law and legislation should be a last resort and lengthy suspensions by the sports body, including what they used to call in horse racing 'warning off' bans -- stay away from any GAA involvement -- might be necessary," he said.

The GAA have made considerable strides in dealing with all forms of indiscipline, especially at the highest levels, over the last number of years. On the inter-county field, the various bodies that deal with discipline (CCCC, CHC, CAC, DRA) were arguably never as quiet as this summer since their institution in 2005.

But the damage inflicted by the pictures and TV clips of violent scenes on club fields within the parameters of the pitch, involving supporters and officials, is immeasurable.

True, it happens in other sports and such incidents don't generate near the same publicity, but the position of Gaelic games -- and the network of media that cover them at every level -- will always be reflected.

When the GAA began its campaign to keep spectators off the field for post- match celebrations in Croke Park, the possibility of legislation being enacted was mooted, but, like Professor Anderson's view, the onus was placed back on the Association to exhaust every avenue themselves first.

They did so with remarkable success over the last three years and the celebrations that followed the Dublin and Donegal All-Ireland victories emphasised how the grass really was greener on the other side.

Grappling with the mindset of supporters who believe the boundary of a pitch offers them some equivalent of 'Dail privilege' to exact their own form of summary justice to a player or ref is a different problem that the GAA, or any sports body for that matter, may not be equipped to deal with.

Making the pitch sacrosanct for only those who have the authority to be there and enforcing that with relevant laws may be be the only way this problem can ever be controlled, never mind cured.

Irish Independent

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