O’Brien attends his 54th consecutive Congress this weekend in Newcastle, Co Down and says the clubs’ loss of power is the biggest change he has seen in half a century of service.
“The biggest change I find is the way things are done. When I first went to Congress the club was very much the cornerstone of the association; it still is, but a lot of people don’t seem to recognise that anymore.
“In those days only a club could put in a motion to Congress, everything came from the grassroots; it couldn’t come from individual counties, it couldn’t come from Provincial Councils, it couldn’t come from Central Council, from the Árd Chomhairle – nobody but the club. A motion was decided at the club AGM, it went from there to the county convention and if it was approved there it went on to the Congress agenda.
“That meant that the clubs decided GAA policy. You look at this weekend’s Congress, and very few of the 123 motions come from the clubs. There are 45 motions from Árd Chomhairle – 45 out of 123! That’s taking the influence and authority from the clubs and transferring it to the Árd Chomhairle, and I think that’s a very, very dangerous development.
“It’s taking the power from the clubs, and it’s not progress, not as I see it anyway. It’s progress if you want to make the association into a civil-service style bureaucratic organisation, but the club scene is now taking second place – they are the backbenchers in GAA politics, being pushed further and further into the background.”
O’Brien, 88, links the club’s shrinking role to other aspects of Irish life. “It’s like the small shops, the small post-offices, the small Garda Stations, they’re all being wiped out, but if you push the clubs much further, what’s going to happen?
“We are run by volunteers, that must never be lost sight of, and those volunteers are more important than ever now, with fewer of them.”