Achievement of his lifetime
Money-mad managers don't impress the next president of the GAA but hard work does, as he tells Dermot Crowe
I N March 2000, Liam O'Neill found himself in the midst of a crisis in the wake of the sudden resignation of Pádraig Horan as Laois senior hurling manager. With a league assignment against the reigning All-Ireland champions Cork only a few days away, the county secretary took on the management role on an interim basis. "In a sort of masochistic way," he said of the impending trip to Páirc Uí Chaoimh, "I am looking forward to it."
The same colourful language is absent as he looks ahead to the GAA presidency, which will take effect in April 2012 when he'll succeed Christy Cooney. But he is excited by the challenge and can't think of anything better he'd like to be doing. The fact that it will be a bloodless coup, without any rivals contesting an election, doesn't bother him or diminish the sense of achievement. He will be the first Laois native to hold the office, although Bob O'Keeffe in the 1930s, a Mooncoin man, represented the same county.
There have been some grave noises about O'Neill's mandate after Sheamus Howlin's withdrawal left him on a solo run. Howlin, who stepped down as Leinster chair last weekend, has instead targetted the next election. "I am happy enough that I have (a mandate)," states O'Neill. "I know it's unusual that three others pulled out but it doesn't bother me in the least. The rules are the rules. If there had been an election I was ready for it and more than ready for it. While people might say it's bad for democracy, I have no doubt that the organisation supports my candidacy for presidency.
"Every presidential candidate who is accepted by Congress has a job to do and you go and do it and that's it. Whether you are elected after a contest or not doesn't matter in the least. People know I have worked the work as well as talked the talk, and they know that I know every inch of this organisation. And I do."
He points to 35 years of committee activity that began with a job as secretary of UCD while a student there and led on to his spell as secretary of the county board, at the third attempt, his chairing of Leinster Council and finally him securing one of the most prominent positions in Irish sports administration.
"What's that? 35 years? It's a good apprenticeship, isn't it?" he states reflectively. "And people know that. They know me and they trust me and they know I don't play politics with their organisation. I have a reputation for being serious at times but I have a light side too, people know that. But they know I take my involvement in the GAA seriously. And I want to do the best for the organisation. I am not afraid of hard work. I did not rest on my laurels after the defeat (to Christy Cooney last time). I jumped straight into the disciplinary campaign and gave it my best shot for a year, then I took over games development."
O'Neill polled 112 votes the last time and while a respectable tally behind the favourite, Cooney, the impact of losing isn't easily forgotten. "At times during my campaign, particularly towards the end, I thought I had more support. But a good bit of support switched at the end, on the night before Congress. Now, not having been through a campaign before, I wasn't as alert to what happened on the ground that time. I think the fact that the election was being put on a Friday night this time was a direct response to that."
The canvassing game held little appeal for him. But he learned the ropes and returned with a better grasp of the politics. "It is very apparent (after an election) from the appointments to the committees who the new president's supporters were. I decided I wasn't going to look back. I have dealt with everybody since Sligo the same as if they had voted for me. People are entitled to their vote and I respect that; as a democrat you have to accept that somebody might switch."
He believes there must be a "better way" of choosing GAA presidents than the current model. "I didn't like to have to bother people to look for support. When you know the names of every person who is going to vote, you know who they are, then it becomes very personal; you can see you are putting pressure on people. I would certainly say there are very few people who will walk into the hall in Mullingar (next month) that I won't know. It can be awkward asking people for votes. The process when you know the electorate is very different from when you don't.
"Could Central Council do it? But then people like the fun. Some have said to me, 'are you sorry you won't have the thrill of winning?' The thrill of winning wouldn't excite me as much as the worry of inflicting defeat on somebody. I wouldn't like anyone to feel or be made feel as bad as I did in Sligo; because it is a very personal and a very public defeat when you're beaten. And so the kind part of me wouldn't like to inflict that on anybody."
A view of the president as wielding merely superficial influence, clocking up the road miles on a scorched earth campaign of club visits still exists. O'Neill sees such visitations as important and necessary and not without value. "There is still huge regard in GAA communities for the office of the presidency. It's not whether it's Seán Kelly, Nickey Brennan or Christy Cooney, they want the president. That is important to them. And it's not a ceremonial thing, it's more than that; it's part of the lifeblood of the organisation that the president interacts. You don't get to meet all the clubs, but you get to meet enough of them. I think every county would expect to see the president. It takes up time when other stuff isn't being done, it's evening time. What do you do on a Friday night after 9 o'clock anyway? Watch the Late Late Show? You'd be better off out with your members."
O'Neill is 55 and a native of Trumera where he is the third generation of family to teach in the local national school. His mother, 88, remains active, opinionated and a source of good advice. He takes after her straight-talking style, recalling an awkward moment when he was a teenager when she confronted the then county board chairman on the street after her son had been overlooked for the county minors. His father, who passed away in 1993, was a "much more charismatic character" and in 1948 was defeated in a contest for vice-chair of Leinster Council. "While I was very fond of my father I could never be him. That makes me more decisive and definite in what I do."
His stewarding of the disciplinary committee brought him into conflict with inter-county managers but the package of changes it proposed eventually made a spirited go at gaining the necessary two-thirds majority at Congress in 2009, falling short by just eight votes. He learned a lesson that greater initial consultation held the key to making such campaigns a success. While the proposals had strong support there was an enduring sense that they came from the top down, rather than the grassroots.
"Nickey (Brennan) asked us to do the job and we did it and people responded but Christy (Cooney) didn't want to follow up on it and it was dropped. That actually proved it was a top-down approach, because had it come from the body of the organisation it would have come up again. That is a president's prerogative and you were asking me earlier on about the power of a president -- there you have it."
In spite of the ferocious opposition encountered and the eventual defeat, O'Neill feels that the disciplinary campaign wasn't entirely in vain. "The satisfying thing was we eliminated fouling around the neck and the frontal charge by virtue of running the campaign that spring. We brought those infractions into disrepute so much that they were nearly wiped out, ironically without the penalties we proposed."
He feels the hostile attention from some managers reflected their growing influence. In his view the balance has been shifted too far from the county administrators into the domain of managers, especially those hauled in from outside counties. In his own time as county secretary Laois went through five different football and hurling managers in the three years he served.
"I haven't a great record with managers, the only reason I tell you is that there is a consistency in my attitude to managers since when I was in power. I didn't tolerate people who made demands. One fella was demanding too much money. He ended up being quite open about it. Not all of that group of managers at the time were money men, but one or two were. I wanted to assert the primacy of administrators rather than managers. At that stage given the success we were having and in light of the financial situation at the time in the county (a quarter of a million pounds in debt), the money being spent was outrageous. We are talking about ten years ago."
As for today, he feels that some "people are getting figures which are hugely at variance with what they're worth". He sees no solution in making payments official as
it won't prevent under-the-table supplements being paid. "The managers I respect most are the people who are in it for their own county. That's probably enough to say. Anyone who is coming from afar and taking money for it, I won't say I've no respect for them, but I wouldn't give them any credence in an argument about rules or anything else. I wouldn't listen. I would listen to the manager who is doing it for nothing. And that is why I had no difficulty in Brian Cody having difficulty with our rules. I respected him totally; he was doing it for nothing and because he loved hurling, though it saddened me that we differed."
Allowing payments to managers will, he believes, remove any moral authority the GAA has to condemn the practice. "The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer. And you will have thrown away one of the foundation stones of the association."
So, what is his solution? "We try to enforce the rules as best we can, then we find some other way. The amount paid to managers by clubs, I think we need to actually put those figures on the table. I would say the amount of money is staggering and can't be sustained and won't in the current climate anyway."
He preaches self-sufficiency and promoting in-house coaches to a high technical standard, using all modern scientific learning. "We are actively working towards self-sufficiency. Every club and county would have qualified coaches and the better ones would coach the county teams -- that is the ideal." Is it feasible? "Why not? We are only going back to what we did before. We have gone away from it. We are going back to something from our own lifetime, it is not that difficult."
Incidentally, Laois lost the match in Cork 11 years ago, 4-21 to 0-11, and O'Neill soon relinquished the role of county manager for the safer ground of administration. "I have always wanted to be in a leadership role in whatever organisation I was involved in and I couldn't imagine anything else I would rather be than president of the GAA. At this stage I think I wanted it more. And ultimately I think that is why I am here, on my own."
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