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GAA's identity crisis means home is not always where the heart is

ALMOST 10 years ago, a high-powered committee ruffled feathers by tackling a cornerstone of GAA life and proposing changes to the parish rule.

The Strategic Review Committee (SRC), a carefully comprised workgroup tasked with mapping out the future for Gaelic games, reported back in 2002 with a medley of ideas, such as splitting Dublin in two, but many of their propositions were left untouched.

That's exactly the category their parish rule pitch fell into: the committee felt the rule needed to be relaxed or even replaced.

"Its relevance in defining community has decreased," the report stated. "New bye-laws should be introduced to define the geographic boundaries for club membership, as a strict interpretation of the one-club-per-parish rule will not be universally appropriate going forward."

The SRC also argued that if numbers were to increase flexibility would be required, particularly at underage level, where schools create new community boundaries which affect young people's views of local identity.

A decade on, two young brothers, Pádraic (14) and Colin (8) O'Sullivan have discovered there is still no flexibility. Through their mother, Christine, they have found themselves pitted in a High Court case for the past two years because the parish rule dictates they must travel 11km to play for Ballyhar-Firies, a club they have no link with, but is the one that is in their parish. The boys, however, want to play for Listry, the club just a mile from their home.

The impasse led to a prolonged battle which saw High Court proceedings brought against the Kerry board in 2009 before the case was referred to the Disputes Resolution Authority and then sent back to the board.

On July 5 last year, the Kerry board voted 33 to 21 that the brothers had to play for their parish team. On the night the vote was taken there were 20 abstentions -- what does that tell you about the divisive nature of this issue?

Last week, we learned that the High Court action was finally settled after the case went to mediation. A second vote on the boys' future will now be taken by the board on July 11.

Former Kerry footballer Dara ó Cinnéide has strong feelings on parish boundaries and the definition of a club and community.

"I don't know the ins and outs of this case in Kerry but in general the parish rule issue is under massive inspection," he says. "This is a deeply personal thing so I can fully understand the emotions involved. There is a problem -- you go to Tralee and there are no real boundaries or geographic traditions. Indeed, you could play for any of four clubs -- it might depend on who asks you first or your proximity to club grounds.

"But a few miles away there could be stringent divides in more rural areas and you could be confined or defined by them. The identity of the parish is becoming less relevant in parts of Ireland and that's sad to see. Sometimes, when the question of borders and boundaries arises a club is looked upon as being inward, small-minded and parochial.

"To be honest, I have no problem with that. We are little cliques so why not celebrate it? We shouldn't be shy about that sort of thing.

"My club An Ghaeltacht never had an outside manager and we've had very few outside players. Maybe we're different in that we are on our own geographically, we speak as Gaeilge and we like to operate all our affairs through the Irish language.

"I will always consider myself a Gaeltacht man first, Kerryman second and Irishman third. It broke my heart to lose an All-Ireland final with my club more than it hurt to lose one with Kerry. I was destroyed to lose to Tyrone and Armagh but losing to Caltra really broke a lot of us here. I have no doubt that in 10 years' time when I hear of Caltra it will bring the pain back to everyone in An Ghaeltacht.

"So while there could be a sense of disconnect with other parishes and clubs all around the country, but not here. It's the identity I have and it's not something to be shy about."

ó Cinnéide mentions John Sugrue, the Kerry physio, who lived in Portlaoise and formerly Belfast but always drove back to the Kingdom to play with his club. He also references Peter Lenihan who plays with Division 4 Finuge but regularly spins back from Navan to represent them.

"Those guys always wanted the association of being at home," ó Cinnéide adds. "But not everyone can be as committed. Years ago, I'd attend a match and pick out a Listowel player miles off because of his style. I'd know a guy was from Moyvane because he was so committed, tenacious and tough. But you couldn't do that now. I don't like saying it, but everyone plays and looks the same and maybe identity in the GAA has become less relevant. If so, it's sad because we get strength from our identity and cultures are created within a group of individuals."

The greatest challenge to the notion of a parish rule is modern living. This past decade parents have discovered the complexities involved in setting down roots. Ultimately, their children's school becomes the main symbol of their new identity but the nearest school to their home is not always in their parish and this is where a lot of the GAA's problems with the rule can arise.

Life was simpler in the past. The excellent book, The GAA: A People's History illustrates the extraordinary influence the GAA exerted on Irish social life, spreading the Association into every corner of the country by building clubs around parish units and community networks.

"What was clear from the beginning -- whatever about the precise nature of the boundaries -- was the association between club and place," the book says. "This stress on the local proved a masterstroke. Residency rules were introduced which restricted the movement of players between teams and these, together with the establishment of a system of internal county-based competitions, helped in the creation of intense inter-community rivalries. This was vital to the success of the early GAA and to the roots it set down. It meant that when clubs took to the field, players were playing for more than personal glory -- the reputation of their community was also at stake.

"In Dublin, where the 'Parish Rule' was never applied, non-natives helped to found and fill clubs where the connections among players owed more to the workplace than a shared place of origin or residence."

The book shows that even in the late 1880s there were discrepancies in the application of the parish rule in cities.

"The parish rule is there as a guideline and always has been," says GAA operations manager Fergal McGill. "It's used to determine where catchment areas are and who belongs to them. Most county boards take it upon themselves to define those areas and enforce the rule and there's usually a very pragmatic approach.

"But it is fair to say that there is no parish rule in cities like Dublin. There never has been and so maybe that puts the issue under scrutiny."

Ultimately, there are strong arguments for maintaining the rule in its current guise.

If it's abolished, the door could open for powerful clubs to hoover up surrounding talent from smaller units. If that happens there will be no enforceable guidelines on player transfers. It will be open season.

"That won't happen. We just can't see the parish rule being affected in years to come," says McGill. "While it's not in operation in certain urban areas, it continues to define most rural clubs and although there may be one or two challenges here and there we wouldn't envisage any threat to it in the foreseeable future even if the country has changed a lot."

In the interim, however, it doesn't help anyone that an amount of clubs have gone to war to challenge boundaries, leaving many county boards with rows to resolve.

Crinkle and Birr, neighbouring Offaly clubs, endured years of bitterness before finally moving on. Crinkle originally lay in the Birr parish but formed a separate underage entity when the population swelled. The Offaly board duly reaffirmed new boundaries but Birr were unhappy and appealed, feeling their supply would be severely restricted in the future.

A raw saga raged for years and tensions were so bad at one stage that an Offaly under 12 B football championship was put on ice after the county board ruled that Birr had played two players illegally in the competition.

"It was complicated but it's all in the past now," says Crinkle hurler Jon Ryan. "I moved to this club a few years ago and all that stuff was going on at the time but all I can say is this club was so welcoming to me and it epitomised what a club should be all about. I moved from Tipperary and was living in Crinkle, working there, and soon felt part of the community. It was home for me because there was an immediate sense of community. I think we're losing sight of the bigger picture -- in many ways the GAA is about doing your best, putting your best team on the field. It matters more if the players on that team are embedded in the community.

"But it's a challenge. Just recently we lost one of our best forwards to Birr. He is a lovely lad, got on well with all of us at Crinkle but probably felt we weren't going to deliver medals. Because he was such a good guy we didn't fight it, but it's disappointing.

"At the end of the day, Crinkle is my parish. Others might ask the GAA to look at helping clubs so that there are not Messis and Ronaldos flying around the place. Maybe some sort of compromise is needed for the smaller clubs."

There have also been high-profile problems in Laois, Wexford, Offaly and Carlow and outside the Pale where Dublin people have relocated to places like Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. In these counties the parish rule is alive and newcomers have to familiarise themselves with it.

Included in the boundary quandary is the trend of players leaving smaller clubs and joining more prolific teams for their own reasons. Promising Russell Rovers hurler Brian Hartnett's proposed move to Midleton was blocked earlier this year and he must now spend 96 weeks on the sidelines. He can't play for the Cork under 21s either because he is refusing to play for Russell Rovers which makes him ineligible for inter-county action under a bye-law.

Meanwhile, a host of intercounty footballers from all over Ireland have left home to join Dublin city clubs.

The Association needs to carefully monitor the cases that do crop up, particularly those that involve young children. Only six years ago, two 10-year-old boys were kicked out of a football competition by Louth officials because they lived in the wrong part of town. The two friends, one the son of immigrants, wanted to help their side win a schoolboy final but were told they were not eligible because they lived in a different parish. It was a public relations disaster.

Privately, some GAA figures fear a club or player could one day take their grievances to EU law.

Niall Collins, a former All-Ireland minor medallist with Laois and sports and competition lawyer at law firm Mason Hayes and Curran, anticipates an ever-increasing role for the EU and its law in the governance of sport but not in sports which have nothing to do with economic activity.

"The EU courts have made it clear that sport is subject to EU law insofar as it constitutes an 'economic activity'," he says. "However, matters purely of a sporting nature which have nothing to do with economic activity, will not trigger the application of EU law.

"Overall sport is big business and I believe we will see an ever-increasing reliance on the provisions of competition law in particular by those who would seek to challenge the decisions of sports governing bodies.

"Much of the recent EU case law relating to sport has been seen by some observers as a direct attack on the autonomy of sports governing bodies but I see it as more of a shot across the bow. Sports governing bodies should now be seen as having a conditional autonomy to self-regulate."

With that route unlikely to yield any joy, clubs and players will simply have to endure the anomalies along the way.

Sunday Indo Sport