Further evidence that the GAA is the process of profound structural change was revealed at this week’s meeting of the Cork County Board.
The debate at that meeting over the future format of the Cork senior and intermediate championships offered a clear insight into the extent to which the GAA is an organisation that is unable to cope with the challenges that it now faces.
Most obviously, it revealed once again the enduring failure of the GAA to arrange a calendar of play that offers meaningful matches to the great bulk of its adult membership.
It is fascinating to read reports of the content of the meeting. Delegates were offered three options from which to choose.
Option A would see the championship begin in April, be left aside until August and then recommence in that month. Option B would see the championships structured into four groups of three, to start in August. Option C would see two groups of six created, championship matches played through the summer, with clubs fielding without their county players for two matches.
The first thing to say is that it is commendable that Cork County Board came with options, promoted a wide-reaching debate and gave space within that debate for the articulation of an expanse of opinion.
That county chairperson Tracey Kennedy and county CEO Kevin O’Donovan spoke so positively about quality of the questions and the engagement of the delegates speaks volumes for their approach.
In the end, Option A won out, receiving 136 votes, Option B received 33 votes and Option C received 52 votes.
There are three essential points to be made about the debate. The first point is that it was interesting that the existing structure to the championship was not one of the options put to a vote. That would suggest that the recent changes in the structures of the All-Ireland championship left it unfeasible to continue as things stood. So, far from improving the position of clubs, in this instance at least the recent changes at national level undermined the Cork championship.
The second point is to note that the fact that the Cork championships will be played in April and will then stop for 12 to 16 weeks before cranking again into gear is not the way any person who wants to run a good championship would chose to do so, given a free choice.
Presumably it represents what Cork’s delegates considered to be the best they could do in the circumstances.
And, of course, those circumstances are the abject failure to develop a coherent strategy around inter-county games. Take hurling in Munster, for example. In January, the hurling teams of Munster played each other in the Munster League. They rolled on then straight into the Allianz League, where many of the counties played each other again in February and March. By May they’ll be back playing each other again in the Munster Hurling Championship. By the time we get to July three of the five counties will have moved on into the All-Ireland series and this will run until the middle of August.
It is one thing to have presided over this sprawl when county managers were halfway sensible about the playing of club games. But to stand back and allow the inter-county season to be run this way undermines on a weekly basis the GAA’s claims about the importance of the club.
What is most galling about this is that there appears to be no urgency in Croke Park to act.
The upshot is the making of the type of decision that the delegates at Cork County Board had to make this week. They know that it’s not the way to do things – but it was the most palatable option available to them.
Which brings the third point of interest – the proposal that clubs play a limited amount of matches without their county players in order to allow for games to be played in the summer.
It was made clear by the delegates of various clubs that they did not want to – and ultimately would not – play championship matches without their county players. For example, Ger McCarthy of Clonakilty made this point – as did Denis Harrington of St Finbarr’s.
There is another aspect to this, too. It is hard to believe that almost any inter-county player would have been happy with their club playing championship games as they leaned on a fence looking on. This would surely be particularly true for those county players who see little or no game time.
It should be said that there was some support in the meeting for this option. Damien Irwin of the Killeagh club reported that at a club meeting attended by some 25 members the conversation had turned from widespread opposition at the start of the discussion to broad support for it by the time it ended. It would be fascinating to know what exactly were the aspects of the discussion that brought so many to change their minds.
What is also fascinating is that 52 delegates at the meeting voted in support of the idea. This is a number that cannot be dismissed, just because the motion was lost.
This is particularly the case when you consider that Damien Irwin made the point in the debate before the voting that he didn’t think it would be successful on this occasion, but that in the long term it may be adopted.
Whatever about the merits of arguments for and against the proposition of club players not playing for their county, what cannot be denied is that a significant number of people supported it and this emphasizes a shift in thinking that has profound implications for the GAA in the future.
It all begs a very simple question:
‘What will the GAA be like in 20 years’ time?
The answer to that question will be revealed in the decisions made by the Association in the days and years to come. There is nothing inevitable here, nothing that is written into the future.
There are competing visions of what the Association might become – change is inevitable, the great challenge is to shape that change.
Essentially, there is a broad structural conversation about what shape the GAA might take within this new Ireland that is growing around us.