Monday 21 May 2018

Lip service will aggravate CPA

Harsh lessons in recent memory should not be forgotten when tackling club fixtures' issue

The reaction to the motion on transparent voting, with the exception of the GPA’s Seamus Hickey who was supportive, displayed the first real fissures in the relationship between the CPA and the GAA
The reaction to the motion on transparent voting, with the exception of the GPA’s Seamus Hickey who was supportive, displayed the first real fissures in the relationship between the CPA and the GAA

Dermot Crowe

Last weekend's GAA Congress brought to mind a similar annual gathering almost 20 years ago. In the days afterwards a note was left on my desk at work to call Gerry McEntee. The former All-Ireland winner wanted to speak to someone who had attended Congress which turned down a bid to open up Croke Park to other sports. McEntee was not pleased with the decision and keen to learn how the Meath delegation had voted.

He discovered that they had voted against the motion, when one more vote in favour would have swung the decision the other way. This rejection from the Meath constituency didn't reflect sentiment on the ground in McEntee's opinion and, incensed, he wrote a piece for this newspaper which appeared the following Sunday. It challenged the GAA's claim to be a democratic organisation.

That was 2001 and all these years later some of the similarities that emerged last weekend are striking. This issue of accountability re-emerged in the form of a defeated motion from the CPA about voter transparency.

You stood a better chance of knowing how counties voted back when McEntee came calling than you do presently, in this information age, as previously delegates raised their hands to declare their intentions. Someone keen on finding out how a county delegation voted only needed to pinpoint their location in the room and then keep a vigilant eye.

But now, with electronic voting, county voting patterns are veiled in secrecy. The CPA last weekend sought to have each vote cast by delegates recorded and made a matter of public knowledge for the sake of accountability and openness. What was there to fear? The motion was comprehensively defeated, but it did create a heated debate. Once again a fundamental question was being raised about the GAA's claim to be truly democratic.

First, we might dust down McEntee's contribution from 17 years ago. He wrote: "Does anyone believe that the decision taken at Congress yesterday week, in relation to Croke Park, appropriately represents the views of the majority of Gaelic players - both footballers and hurlers - and supporters nationwide? How many county boards actually gave their club and club members the opportunity to express their views on this very important issue?" he asked.

Liam Griffin's own son, who played minor hurling for Wexford, quit at 26 mainly because the fixtures were a mess with demoralising gaps and constantly rotating schedules
Liam Griffin's own son, who played minor hurling for Wexford, quit at 26 mainly because the fixtures were a mess with demoralising gaps and constantly rotating schedules

McEntee said he knew "for a fact" that clubs in Meath were never asked for their views and that the issue was discussed only at executive committee level. "Despite that," he wrote, "none of the ten delegates voted in favour of the motion and three abstained. Does that accurately reflect the views of Meath GAA followers?"

The potential for Congress delegations not honouring the will of the grassroots member, and specifically the club player, helped inspire the CPA motion that was hammered at Congress last weekend, getting just 17 per cent of the vote. The reaction to this motion, with the exception of the GPA's Seamus Hickey who was supportive, displayed the first real fissures in the relationship between the CPA and the GAA.

From the outset the CPA was advised by the GAA to pursue its aims and objectives though the democratic route, by formulating motions and bringing them from clubs through the various loops. This has not led to much success and instead fuelled much frustration and cynicism in a relatively new organisation. Of nine motions they were hoping to bring to Congress only two made it and both failed to carry the required support.

Matters have improved, admittedly, nearly 20 years on, even if not in terms of the transparency the CPA was looking for regarding voting. In 2001 McEntee drew attention to the "unusual phenomenon of over 30 delegates abstaining from the vote, including two presidents - the incumbent and one from the recent past - both of whom stated latterly that we should consider opening the stadium to other sports. Yet when the time came, they abstained from the vote."

McEntee also noted the refusal of the GAA to allow a recount given the closeness of the outcome. That was one of the most startling decisions a Congress ever made and was rightly condemned. "Isn't it strange also that this very important issue was decided by two votes on a count of heads in a room of over 300 delegates and yet the president, who initially agreed to a recount, changed his mind under pressure from Frank Murphy, the Cork secretary, who appears to exert influence way beyond his position," wrote McEntee.

He also questioned why Jarlath Burns, nominated by the GAA president as the players' representative, but not by the players themselves, should have had his views widely circulated a week out from the vote. "Isn't it time we moved away from the paranoia and the insular approach that drives young people away from the organisation?" McEntee added. Liam Griffin will probably be nodding his head reading this.

The differences that materialised at this year's Congress were not remotely as pronounced as those that existed between the GPA and GAA in the county players' union's early days. The GPA had a deeper sense of militancy. At Congress in Galway in 1999, Donal O'Neill, an unapologetic free marketeer, turned up seeking to gain admittance. He was not on the guest list. But, like when the Marquis of Queensbury appeared uninvited with rotting fruit at the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, he created a scene, made his point and left.

The hostility between the GPA and the GAA in the early years was barely concealed. The GPA had a welfare mission but was also patently commercial, at least as espoused by O'Neill, and was rife with potential for conflict with the GAA's ideals at the time. The GAA itself was chronically conservative and petty about conceding relatively modest ground on basic player privileges, with lamentably low mileage rates one of the sticking points. Their lack of movement fanned the flames of the GPA and helped create it. There is no question of that. The GPA exists now in no small way due to the GAA's early intransigence. That might be a lesson worth learning.

Five days after Congress in 1999, where O'Neill pulled off his publicity stunt, the Players Committee was formed under chairman Jarlath Burns. This was the GAA being reactive. A few months after being formed the GPA wrote to the GAA seeking to have a meeting. A letter back from the then director-general Liam Mulvihill stated that the GAA would be declining this offer. The GAA began introducing new measures relating to player welfare but the GPA had already stolen a march and it was not going away.

But it still took 10 years to gain official recognition. Last year the CPA had a motion before Congress seeking the same approval. It met with resistance and there was a danger of open hostility breaking out on the floor until former president Nickey Brennan smartly intervened, like a man spotting a row developing, and acted as peacemaker. He proposed deferring the decision for another day and the CPA agreed. The applause which followed was wrongly interpreted in some quarters as triumphalist. In fact, to anyone who was present, it was clear that this applause from the delegates was appreciative of the CPA's flexibility and willingness to step back for the sake of harmony.

A year on, another motion down, the same harmony was not evident. In the meantime the proposal brought forward by Páraic Duffy containing the Super 8, and the later hurling restructure, had raised concern in the CPA that the GAA is not dealing with the issue so much as putting out fires as it goes along. They might see parallels with the response to the GPA's emergence nearly 20 years ago, an organisation responding and reacting rather than taking more radical action.

But it may be waiting. The new president John Horan eight days ago spoke of "evolution, not revolution" as being indicative of how the GAA does business. It hasn't served it badly over the generations but at times the pace it moves at grates and creates a potential for a crisis that is impossible to ignore. The GAA eventually conceded considerable ground to the GPA and pursued a policy of containment, deeming this in the long run a worthwhile strategy, whatever the financial cost. In the case of the CPA it might be a trickier balancing act. The organisation is not drawn from the more glamorous commercial end. It simply wants a proper and reliable fixtures calendar. Going on membership figures, some 25,000 club players believe that the GAA is not fulfilling its duty to them and feels the CPA is necessary to press for greater reforms.

What the GAA has presented for the next three years is not sufficient in its view; it doesn't go far enough.

The CPA has tried the democratic route and failed but it will also need to exercise patience and decide where compromise must end and perhaps something more hardline begins. One of its motions that failed to get to Congress looked for player representation on county and provincial committees. It fell at the county hurdle in Wexford. This was a pointed defeat given that Liam Griffin had proposed it in his own county and it still did not gain the support required. The top table raised a concern about the potential reluctance of young players getting involved. What if they refused? Where would we be then? Griffin's point is that unless you make it possible it won't happen.

That top table reservation can be interpreted as an attempt to sabotage the motion, taking the extreme view, or simply symptomatic of an organisation too set in its ways. A bit like the club officer who was heard to express a misgiving about a proposed all-weather pitch development, a project well planned and much needed, in his home village. All very well, he said, but where will we park? If you want to find a reason for not doing something you will find it. Bringing younger, active playing members into the administrative matrix is clearly designed to make it more representative of player sentiment on the ground. It is tantamount to the CPA saying that this sentiment is not being faithfully carried up the food chain at present. The motion on voting is part of the same thinking.

The GAA took much umbrage at this latter implication last weekend. Delegates in opposing Griffin's motion spoke of "vilification" and "Trojan horses" and "witch-hunts" - all very emotive language. It may be genuine but the point made by European delegate Tony Bass that the players don't need an organisation like the CPA as it already has one, and that is the GAA, doesn't entirely hold water. That was the kind of attitude that fostered the GPA. The tale of the woman who brings back the sausages to the butcher she's always purchased from complaining they were sour only to be told, 'if you were hungry, you'd ate them' comes to mind.

If the GAA was sufficiently addressing club player needs the CPA would not exist. CPA members do not spend countless hours trying to find a better way just to be troublesome or because they like a good row. They are not there for personal gain or a need to be in the spotlight. Their organisation's bona fides are solid, with 25,000 players in its ranks, even if membership is free. The problems are real and while those problems remain the CPA, like the GPA, is not going to go away.

"I'm tired of hearing about talented young players lost to soccer and more recently to rugby," commented McEntee after the Congress decision on Croke Park in 2001. "The only way to attract or keep young people playing Gaelic games is to make those games more attractive than others. What happened last Saturday will not encourage one person to consider changing to our code. In fact it might finally make his or her mind up to go the other way."

Sound familiar? The CPA talks of widespread discontent and worrying player drop-out. The GAA plays down these claims. Last weekend had mention of soaring numbers playing the games at juvenile level. The Cúl Camps are thriving. The concern, though, is what happens when those players move into adulthood and messy items like holidays and wives and girlfriends interfere with plans to strike a sliotar or kick a football.

The CPA is looking for reforms like making April totally free of inter-county activity, whereas the GAA has made that discretionary in the hope that county managements will comply. Fat chance of that. The GAA has introduced an experimental system of fixture reform to run for three years. The CPA would argue that if the system is flawed and shown to be flawed after one year, why wait?

The failed proposal relating to bringing younger players into administration was floated previously by Griffin's club around 30 years ago. At the time it met with opposition from the floor at county convention but was voted in. It did not gain the support needed at Congress.

The climate now is less favourably disposed to a proposal with the odour of the CPA. Last year's official recognition bid doesn't seem central to their objectives anymore. They are fixated with fixtures and little else. Griffin's own son, who played minor hurling for Wexford, quit at 26 mainly because the fixtures were a mess with demoralising gaps and constantly rotating schedules. In Wexford it is particularly difficult, being a dual county.

Griffin is much more inside the tent than Donal O'Neill was in his time. He is seen as much less of a maverick. But there was still an avoidable strain in relations evident when the voting transparency motion came up for debate. Already rejected by her county board, Cork representative Tracey Kennedy, having professed her admiration for Griffin's hurling legacy, didn't spare the timber in questioning the motives behind the bid. It was, she felt, tantamount to a rejection of the trustworthiness of delegates in being faithful to the expressed wishes of club members and liable to influence up the chain.

The new GAA president and the incoming director-general would be well advised to do more than pay lip service to the CPA. Griffin ruled out strikes, the nuclear option, a year ago when explaining why he got involved. But there was a trace of frustration in him a week ago, as if the gloves might be about to come off.

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