The founding principle of the GAA has been increasingly neglected

Last Saturday, shortly after 4pm, the GAA Communications Department sent out a press release setting out ‘details on decisions taken at a meeting of the GAA’s Central Council in Croke Park today.’ The decisions alluded to in the press release were ones made by Central Council in respect of the abandonment of the ‘three handpasses rule’ and of the increase in admission fees to matches, writes Paul Rouse

The founding principle of the GAA has been increasingly neglected

Last Saturday, shortly after 4pm, the GAA Communications Department sent out a press release setting out ‘details on decisions taken at a meeting of the GAA’s Central Council in Croke Park today.’ The decisions alluded to in the press release were ones made by Central Council in respect of the abandonment of the ‘three handpasses rule’ and of the increase in admission fees to matches, writes Paul Rouse

The abandonment of the ‘three handpasses rule’ is puzzling. How can it be that a rule that was introduced by a committee, who used detailed, voluminous evidence to underpin their work, be abandoned before the competitions in which it is being trialed are even finished?

The argument here is not whether the trialed rule was workable, let alone worthwhile – this was very much case unproven. Instead, the point is that if the rule was worth trying in the first place, it was worth trying properly.

To capitulate in this way, with the available new evidence incomplete and the inferences to be drawn uncertain, is no way to run anything.

Still worse was the decision to increase ticket prices. Here are the highlights:

  • €10 onto the price of an -Ireland final ticket.
  • €5 onto the price of an All-Ireland semi-final ticket.
  • €5 onto the price of qualifier matches.
  • €5 onto the price of league matches for Divisions 1 and 2 (or a €3 increase if pre-bought before matchday).

It is to the GAA’s credit that it retains €5 tickets for Under 16s for all matches up to – but not including – All-Ireland finals. And the €10 cost for Division 3 and 4 league matches is also fair.

But such measures do not provide the GAA hierarchy with free licence to squeeze money from its membership everywhere else.

When it comes down to it, the various price increases are wrong on every level.

To start at the top of the pile, to look for €90 for admission to an All-Ireland final is too much – much too much.

It was most informative to be up in Tyrone in the week before the All-Ireland football final last year and to hear the number of people who were dismayed at the cost of tickets. This was a cost that determined some people simply could not afford to travel and that others would have to be left at home. And of course, the €90 for the ticket is only the beginning of the cost of that day out.

The trotting out of the usual arguments that the prices had not really gone up for years and that the cost of an All- Ireland final ticket stands comparison with that charged into soccer and rugby internationals is profoundly irritating.

In respect of the first point, there have been a series of price increases in recent years – as documented by John Fogarty in this paper – and yet the GAA’s press release reads: ‘This represents the first major review of Championship ticket prices since 2011.’ This is the kind of spoof and spin and disingenuousness that people trot out when they’re trying to hide facts that are unpalatable. So, did the other recent price increases took place without a major review, just a minor one, or was it a medium one? It’s embarrassing that the GAA should have to resort to that sort of stuff.

Secondly, does the GAA not claim that it is an entirely different type of organisation to all the other professional sporting bodies in the country? Does it not lay huge stock on its ‘amateur ethos’ and volunteerism and a structural model that is unique and rooted in every community? Apparently not when it comes to its ticket prices – how convenient that is.

It is written time and again that the GAA hierarchy gets upset at any notion that they are out of touch with the grassroots, but how else can you explain a decision that loads costs onto people who pay into matches?

All across Irish society the cost of living is increasing. At the ame time, real wages are stagnant. It is true that there are now many more people working than there were at the depths of the recession, but to mistake increased employment for a prosperous recovery is to reveal precisely how out of touch a decision- maker is.

For example, the boom around Dublin’s digital docklands is entirely at odds with real lived experiences across great swathes of the city, not to mention the rest of the country.

You do not need to be an economist nor an accountant to understand that the Irish economic recovery is partial, fragile and something that should not be misread as a boom.

And yet the cost of an All-Ireland final ticket is now almost 30% higher than it was at the height of the madness that was the Celtic Tiger years. And league prices are 33% higher for Division 1 and Division 2 matches.

What leaves an even more sour taste is that the decision to increase costs is not one that the GAA has to make; it is not pinned to the wall under a crush of debt and reluctantly passing on the costs to its members.

Instead, rather than ticket price increases being something the GAA needs to do, it is something it chooses to do. The difference between those two things lies in empathy with those of its members who have less money than others.

It is the kind of choice that begs a series of questions: What happens when the Central Council of the GAA sits around a table? How do they make decisions? Who says what? What is the logic that underpins decisions? Does anyone dissent?

You never find answers to these things in a press release. The ‘details’ offered in that release were related to the outcome and not in anyway to how decisions were made and what might possibly justify them. Perhaps we will have to wait until the minutes of recent Central Council meetings are made public. These minutes will reveal whether there was anyone sitting around the table who spoke out against the price increases.

Every institution needs people in its upper ranks who are willing to dissent or who, if they lead, encourage such dissent from those around them. Can this be said to be the way the GAA now operates?

The minutes will ultimately reveal this, but, of course, there is a long delay in that revelation. The GAA operates a 30-year rule, meaning that last year saw the release of the minute book for the meetings that spanned 1987.

In that year the annual controversy was about the U2 concerts that took place in Croke Park and left the pitch in such a state that the Leinster hurling final was delayed for two weeks. It’s the kind of controversy that might be considered a luxury one, something that gets the blood up, but is not fundamental to the Association’s future.

But, from the 1987 minutes, the voting is clear and so are the contributions made by delegates.

This is a record that is laid bare from the oldest surviving GAA Central Council minute books which date from 1899. From that point on – year after year – the minutes of the meetings of Central Council reveal the decisions that shaped the development of the GAA through the 20th century. Indeed, the story of Ireland can be found in these pages – there is cultural awakening, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the impact of World War II, the arrival of television and so much else.

Through all of this history, across decades of controversy, the GAA had a clear sense of itself as something rooted and belonging to all. The founder of the GAA Michael Cusack laid bare his absolute commitment to people of no wealth when he founded the GAA. This commitment was never perfectly realised over the years, but it was nonetheless something to cherish.

Cusack, himself, had been born into abject poverty in the middle of the Famine and even as he climbed to a certain wealth and position in Dublin some 35 years later, he retained an empathy which he set out at the first meeting of the GAA.

This founding principle of the GAA has been increasingly neglected. This neglect is something that can be dressed up and wished away anyway you like, but the evidence is clear and undeniable.

So, for example, when GAA ticket price increases came in 2011, the rate of unemployment reached 15.9% (CSO figures), accounting for more than 300,000 of the workforce. That was a lot of families under pressure. Where were they to find the additional money to go to GAA matches?

In 2014, in the month when the GAA first put its championship games behind a paywall on Sky Sports, the unemployment rate was some 12.4% - more than 280,000 people and their families. More pressure.

This is ordinarily how organisations change – not by any big-bang moment, rather by a series of small decisions heading always in one direction.

To hear the GAA’s President laud the strength of the economy, to hear him equate the games with ‘products’ and equate the organisation itself with a ‘business’ was further evidence of where the GAA’s hierarchy has moved to.

Ultimately, the triumph of cash and commerceat central level lies at the heart of last weekend’s ticket price increases. It has skewed the priorities of the Association and led it to take decisions that render it at odds with the reality of too many people’s lives.

What do the GAA’s Central Council delegates have to say about that? Are any of them willing to speak out?

Or do we have to wait 30 years until the release of Council minutes to fully comprehend the extent of their silence.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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