‘….through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic Games and pastimes’ is the phrase that says it all on page 5 (1.2) of the official guide. It is the reason that GAA Clubs and Counties exist. Our games and pastimes have been with us for millennia and it was felt, a mere 130 years ago, that it was time to form an Administrative body, ‘Cumann Lúthchleas Gael’ in order to ensure that these pursuits, unique to our island, would continue to flourish. Each subsequent generation has ensured that this has been achieved. Shortly after the foundation of the GAA it became obvious that it was the field sports rather than athletics that had captured the imagination and when the basic requirements of the use of a piece of ground and a ball (or sliothar) were met; parish rivalry took care of the rest.
The basic aims of the GAA have not changed since its foundation but its administration has evolved to cater for a massive increase in financial turn-over as well as greater responsibilities in matters of ‘Health and Safety,’ player-injury and child-protection issues to name but a few. It has proven itself up to the task and is regarded by its peer organisations as the ‘go-to’ expert in many of these areas.
The recruitment of full-time professionally trained coaches, to pass on the fundamentals of our games to primary school children, is but one tangible example of how serious we are about carrying out these basic aims; one that we should be proud of. This is the first generation of children who require organised exercise in order to develop mentally and physically; a cohort that because of different life experiences do not pick up basic motor skills through ‘play’ as previous generations did. The GAA influences children and young adults in a positive way by providing healthy exercise, leadership and team skills. That it would be necessary to provide physical activity to young children wasn’t ever on the ‘radar’ of the founders of the association but it is a fact that the GAA is best placed to make available this essential ingredient which leads to a healthier, longer and more full-filled life. The resource that is Cumann na mBunscol is probably undervalued and under-utilised in this regard.
During a discussion regarding the cost of fielding inter county teams a frustrated official declared that the day was fast approaching when a 53 seater bus would not have the capacity to transport the County panel, officials and the ever increasing ‘back-room’ team to games.
The comment is an indication of the ‘professionalism’ that is now inherent in the preparation of senior inter-county panels. Nutritionists, phycologists, masseurs and stats-men along with the ‘bread and butter’ physio, ‘Doc’ and selectors are to be found in most dressing rooms these days. Not that long ago the ‘Physio’ and ‘Doc’ would have been regarded as extravagances.
The negatives of spending relatively large sums of money on the preparation of Inter-County teams have been well-documented but the positives less so. The willingness to make use of the very latest research and technology in preparing these players and to embrace the ‘new’ science is to be applauded as we train amateur athletes to compete at the highest level in peak condition. Undoubtedly many management committees spend more than can be justified on their Inter-County set-ups. Administrators in Connacht GAA have argued for some time that the preparation of teams, to a similar or higher level, can be achieved at far less cost than is presently the case. If a Management Committee is authorising the spending of vast sums on these teams at the expense of their ‘Coaching and games’ activities; then that County has a problem. The pursuit of excellence in itself, is not the difficulty.
The GAA is first and foremost an Administrative organisation charged with promoting and preserving Gaelic games and pastimes and the questions posed in this discussion-paper are; have we developed our administrative capabilities to the same extent that team preparation, for instance, has advanced? Is the quality of administrative skills of similar standard across all units?
In 2019 how many members describe their County Committee Management as ‘they’ when referring to the ‘Executive?’ I suspect most and I believe that this is a symptom of a membership which feels ‘left out’ of decision making. ‘Croke Park decided’ is also common in GAA parlance; a phrase which conjures up an image of the administrative building on Jones’ Rd., having a ‘mind of its own!’ The notion that a few individuals are running the ‘whole show’ is a common one and is of course not unique to Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. It’s also a notion that will prevail in some quarters no matter what system of governance is in place. This is ironic considering that the GAA prides itself on being a most democratic institution and when you consider that Congress, the supreme decision making body invariably has a near 100% turnout with the bar for some votes set at 60% there is some justification in ‘Croke Park’ (the administrators not the building) making that claim.
Despite its ‘democratic’ credentials the Gaelic Athletic Association is one of the few organisations remaining on the ‘Island of Ireland’ not to embrace a ‘one member, one vote’ system to elect officers or decide motions from units. The adoption of such a method of voting would be a ’game changer’ for the Association. It is stating the obvious that it would be more democratic than the representative model at present in use. This model, which entrusts a Club’s decision to three delegates and a County’s decisions at Congress to an equally small number of voters has more in common with the ‘college’ system employed for electing a United States President. However the electoral US college system reflects the majority will of the State whereas the GAA system allows the representatives of Club and County to vote as they wish through a secret ballot.
There are obvious flaws in the US system where a candidate that receives a little more than 50% of the vote in a particular State gets the benefit of all the college votes of that State. In the GAA system there is a very real possibility that one or all of the representatives may vote, in secret, contrary to the wishes of Club or County (that is in Club or County where motions and candidate preference are actually discussed prior to being cast). Even assuming that Club representatives follow their instructions as given at their AGMs if one ‘named club delegate’ is not available to attend Annual Convention then that Club loses a third of its representation. The maths are similar if a County delegate couldn’t attend Congress.
It is nigh impossible to compare the GAA with any similar organisation as they simply do not exist but two Political Parties, in the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did employ a similar voting system in the past whereby each unit (Cumann) had the ‘magical’ three votes. Both political organisations have moved to OMOV in the past decade for internal decisions including the nomination of candidates. Similarly the Irish Farmer’s Association adopted OMOV in 2016. Trade Unions and representative bodies also employ a OMOV process with SIPTU members availing of on-line voting and of course elections in general in the republic are based on the PRSTV system with all citizens over the age of 18 having a vote. Seanad elections allow for a postal vote.
The representative model was used at a time when travel and communications were very basic but the technology now available should allow for voting remotely by making use of unique GAA membership numbers. To maintain the integrity of the County system (where the number of clubs can vary from the low 20s to the low 200s) a compromise college type vote may have to be introduced but the importance of every member having a say; having a stake, cannot be over-stated. OMOV would also go a long way towards equalising the voting strength of Management committees in the Association (usually about 15 votes) which at present is in inverse proportion to the number of clubs in a particular County.
The possibilities are endless and the OMOV principle might be trialled by conducting on-line surveys of the membership with regard to ‘decisions of the day.’ Polls already conducted by the Association have seen very high participation rates among Clubs and young people in particular.
Introducing OMOV would, I believe, also see an increase in the number of women elected to officer positions and gender balance is an area that needs urgent attention.
The big issues of the day should be debated in front of members by our best and brightest making use of live-streaming where appropriate or do we wish to leave the arguments to a privileged group of non-elected commentators who have greater access to the media?
The ‘Culture’ of any organisation is key to its success. If that culture revolves around a small group of individuals choosing an even smaller number of decision makers then progress, if there is any, will be a matter of luck; a matter of chance.
GAA literature often refers to the Chairperson, Secretary, Treasurer and PRO as being the principal officers sitting on the County Committee. This meritocracy, if indeed it is ever occurs in fact, appears nowhere in rule nor should it be countenanced. No organisation can thrive where such distinctions are made and at their worst this implied exclusivity creates a culture where it is permissible to leave major decisions in the hands of a few. It is recognised that the work-load is not borne equally with the County Secretary having the more onerous of the roles but responsibilities can be shared by agreement. Once elected to the management committee an officer assumes collective accountability. Leadership comes in many guises and the ‘Irish and Cultural Officer’ or the ‘Children’s Officer’ on many a County committee have proven themselves to be astute, honest brokers who contribute intelligently to the discourse, whatever the topic, despite holding posts that are rarely associated with power.
In recent years, with very little debate, an increasing number of officers are appointed rather than elected. Is this the way forward? Surely we should strive to have more elected positions (sub-committees?) not less.
The role of the subcommittee is frequently misunderstood by members and officers. These committees are set up to concentrate on particular issues and advise the County Committee as to how to proceed. They are not decision makers and are not elected positions (future reformers might consider at least some of these positions to be decided by vote). On taking the advice of a subcommittee on-board the County Committee then decides on a course of action (the CCC is an exception in that it has plenary powers in certain circumstances). Sub committees are invaluable when used properly as they allow experts in a particular area to concentrate on a once-off project. Temporary committees can be used to engage the services of professionals who are prepared to give time to a finite project but can’t commit long term. At the end of the day the County Committee is the deciding body.
Slightly more than half the population is female and many are involved in the Association. They are, it has to be said, very poorly represented in the GAA at any level. The political system has reacted to the lack of female representatives by introducing candidate quotas and in the voluntary sector strict gender equality processes are employed in the election of Public Participation Network (PPN) representatives in Counties.
Another feature of the PPN committee is the ‘rotating’ chair concept where a different chairperson presides over each meeting; decided in advance. This procedure underlines the fact, often forgotten, that the Chairperson has the same status as everyone else at committee level (their function is to ensure meetings run smoothly; they are not CEOs) and sharing the responsibility of chairing meetings works well in practice.
The sub-committee format is the ideal structure within which more female representation could be encouraged in the Association. A quota, dictating at least two females and two males per appointed sub-committee, would be a relatively painless beginning on the road to gender equality.
Token diversity was the order of the day in Global Corporations until the more progressive among them discovered that directors of differing ethnic origin, mixed gender and some with disabilities sitting on boards actually helped the ‘bottom line.’ Now diversity is the norm in more enlightened Board-rooms. Kevin Sneader the elected Global managing partner of McKinsey and Company points to a likelihood of a 20% increase in profitability of firms that embrace gender equality and a third more where ethnic diversity is embraced also. Clifford Chance one of the world’s top ten law firms has recently appointed Irishman, Tiernan Brady, as its first ‘Global Head of Inclusion.’
The Association I belong to is unique, in sporting terms, in that it encourages participation by people of all abilities even those with disabilities. However this cohort are also poorly represented when it comes to administrative posts. Surely an ‘Inclusion and Integration’ committee should be reflective of its name through the make-up of its membership.
The Ard Stiurthóir in his annual report asks ‘Should hearings committees be comprised of members from outside the County?’ The answer is an emphatic yes. Once the CCC propose a penalty for a player/member/unit that individual/unit has the right to accept the ruling or ask for a hearing. The Hearings Committee is in effect the ‘Judge and Jury’ from then on. In the Irish legal system great care is taken when choosing a jury with particular emphasis on selecting people who don’t know the accused and are unlikely to be swayed by virtue of their own circumstances of employment or upbringing. A ‘jury’ comprised solely of GAA people from within a County is unlikely to be unknown to the player/member/unit who wishes to have a proposed penalty adjudicated on. Members of the Committee who are from the same club as those appearing before it are obliged to excuse themselves from the proceedings but is it not preferable to have the matter heard by a members with no connection to the County?
GAA members are familiar with the procedure whereby the County Committee’s annual financial statement is adopted at Convention. These are accurate, audited accounts but they are historical. They represent the financial results of the year past and as such there is little anyone can do about them. How much time is spent by County Committees debating the budget for the year ahead or for that matter five or ten years ahead? Do County Committees decide the percentage of turnover to be spent on County teams’ preparations as against Coaching-and-games for instance? If not why not? Surely the members who are tasked with raising money should decide how that money is spent rather than agreeing on how it was spent. Budgets must be sent to ‘Croke Park’ before money, due to Counties, is drawn down. A request that the budget should be accompanied by the minutes of the County Committee meeting where it was decided would ensure that the County Committee was, in fact, the deciding body. This would mirror the process where applications for loans/grants must be accompanied by Club approval in the form of Club minutes.
When Monsignor Luzio, the Papal Nuncio, reported to the Pope regarding the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1920s he stated that he had come to meet with 26 Bishops but had instead ‘met 26 Popes.’ The Governance of the GAA can be equally confusing today with everyone, including ‘Croke Park’ insisting that each County should run its own affairs. When a County runs into serious financial difficulties, however, ‘Croke Park’ takes a keen interest in its ‘affairs.’ To be fair the system does work and most problems, when they occur, are resolved. The financial crash posed a lot of difficulties for units when their projected income for developments, already completed, had to be revised downwards but it was worked through in the intervening years thanks mainly to astuteness on the part of the various Croke Park ‘Finance committees’ made up of full-time and voluntary members. The once-off financial gain from the renting out of Croke Park for use during the construction of the Aviva stadium was also dealt with wisely. We are fortunate to have as a very small percentage of the membership; energetic, intelligent full-time staff with their own progressive ideas. The recently published Governance Guide and the ‘Governance Self-Assessment Tool’ are examples of that forward thinking.
In many ways the GAA was privileged in its early existence in that it had little or no competition among its demographic. That certainly has changed now but it has to be said that the GAA ‘product’ is being experienced by a larger audience than ever and today most of those who follow sport in general don’t discriminate in favour of any particular code.
It is unique in its games and the way it is administered; unique in the fact that it is the only sporting organisation known to promote a cultural side; unique, special and part of ‘What we are.’
The proposals in this discussion paper are my own and do not reflect the views of any GAA committee I may have/had the privilege of being part of. They have been influenced by discussions with members from many County units and my own experience on committees and boards many of which have no connection with the GAA. If this paper contributes to ‘the conversation’ then it will have served its purpose. Gerald O’Connor March 2019.