Wednesday 22 November 2017

GAA must protect parish rule at all costs

The recent case in Kerry which saw two young brothers aged eight and 14 go to the High Court in an attempt to be freed from the confines of the GAA's parish rule brought the debate on this subject into focus. The two boys wanted to play for Listry, the club nearest their home and the one they felt connected to through school and friends, but the rule dictated that they must play for Ballyhar-Firies, their parish team.

After a lengthy saga which saw two votes taken by Kerry County Board, a High Court case and a DRA hearing, the second vote by the board -- taken last month -- reaffirmed its parish rule by a margin of 59-23.

Last week in Meath, the county board met to resolve a case involving neighbouring clubs Duleek-Bellewstown and Curraha.

Curraha had sought exemptions for seven children aged between eight and 14 to play with them, even though they lived in the Duleek parish. Duleek refused to sign the exemptions, saying it could provide the children with football. When Curraha brought the matter to the county's CCCC, they argued that the boys could be lost to the GAA forever if the exemptions were refused as -- similar to the case in Kerry -- they felt no connection to Duleek. For their part, Duleek warned that the board would set a dangerous precedent and so undermine the fundamental principle underpinning the parish rule.

On each of the seven applications, the board voted by a significant majority in favour of granting the exemptions and the boys are now free to play with Curraha.

Stories like those in Meath and Kerry are becoming more commonplace and despite the strong similarities in the two cases, the outcomes were totally different.

The Association's rule book outlines its position on this issue as follows: "A player is considered to owe allegiance and loyalty to his home club and county," but the problem the GAA now has with the principle of 'the parish' as its bedrock is that inconsistency in the application of the rule across the country leaves it open to more rigorous challenge.

It is not in force in every county, which is a glaring weakness. Furthermore, where a club refuses to allow someone living in their parish to play with another club it can now be brought before the county board for adjudication because of recent modifications to the rule which will only add to the inconsistency and confusion.

(At a time when the GAA is in danger of losing its parish rule, it is ironic that the Ladies Gaelic Football Association has gone in the opposite direction and firmed up its version of the parish rule, which has helped to increase its number of new members and, significantly, new clubs, year on year.)

The parish rule, though, is a safeguard for the amateur ethos. It only ever belonged to, or was relevant in, the GAA but to many it is antediluvian -- a remnant from a bygone age that has no place in 21st century Ireland. In a society where concepts such as loyalty and community have become heavily diluted, this is an edict which may appear antiquated but which still stands as a contradiction to modern attitudes, even if it is threatened by populism and disdain.

In the drive to make this country a great, modern European state -- that turned out really well, didn't it? -- we shed many of our traditions and idiosyncrasies. But many still survive.

This rule is one of those. The idea that a person is bound to their parish is the essence of the GAA and deserves respect. Just as other sports at grassroots levels have different rules governing representation, which also must be respected. It is not an argument to compare one against the other and use that as a stick to beat the parish rule with. Each to their own.

Nor is 'convenience' an argument. Bob Dylan once said, "People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent." People will often argue that they should be allowed to associate with the club whose pitch is closer because it is more convenient. The irony that the journey will be completed by car, and not by bike as it was for many years by those who went before, is lost on them. At any rate, I heard recently that there is a primary school every four miles in Ireland -- surely there is a GAA pitch every 10 miles or less?

Here's what former Kerry footballer Dara ó Cinnéide (pictured) had to say in this paper recently on the subject: "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."

If there was not some kind of restriction on the movement of players between clubs, the whole structure of the Association would collapse. This is not a fanciful notion, but a real prospect. The smaller clubs would be picked off one by one as their brightest talents are lured away with the promise of success, or some other inducements. Other players and volunteers would turn away disheartened and disillusioned, creating a vacuum in the community.

We are more conscious now than ever before of the need for participation in sport at all levels and at all ages in terms of the well-being of the nation and every organisation needs to do all it can to penetrate as much into society as possible.

As far as the GAA is concerned, the parish rule is its best weapon in this regard, and until such time as someone comes up with a better idea than that, it should be protected.

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