Clonmel-based Alan Nash, owner of the gaelicrulesadvice.ie website and a former umpire, informed the Irish Examiner the decision has been made to form the organisation following an overwhelming response to a questionnaire sent out to referees across the country.
The questionnaire, which comprises a variety of welfare-related questions, was compiled after Nash was contacted by a number of referees who claimed they had been assaulted in GAA games last year.
The most high-profile case of an attack on a match official in 2011 was that of Ray Matthews in Antrim, who quit when the Ulster Council reduced bans handed down to St Mary’s Rasharkin after he was assaulted in a club football championship game in Ballymena last October.
Membership of the body will be open to referees and umpires in both football and hurling as well as camogie at both club and county level.
The association will aim to provide members with legal counsel to take a civil action arising from an assault in a GAA game.
“They [referees] reported these incidents to the GAA but any punishments that were handed down were then overturned or reduced on appeal,” he said.
“Referees have been upset and angry when they tried to see if anything could be done to revisit the appeals but under the rules of the GAA that is not possible. Unless they take civil action and are prepared to go on the record, they can’t do anything about it.
“But they are afraid about the repercussions of doing that as they might be overlooked for games in the future.
“There are also representations being made to them to not report incidents. But now if that happens all the referee needs to do is refer them to the association.”
Nash believes respect for referees is at an all-time low in the GAA and that match officials have reached breaking point.
“The attitude of the clubs is the attitude of the supporters, ‘if the referee gets a slap it’s part of the game. If he took up the whistle what did he expect?’. That’s the prevailing attitude.
“But if a referee is assaulted and put out of the game and he can’t pay his bills that’s not part of the game.
“You don’t see that in rugby. If a player was to do that in rugby he’ll be punished severely as would his club but it’s very rare that it happens in the GAA.
“We’re not looking for the GAA to do anything other than enforce the rules that are already there.
“Croke Park have told everyone to support referees and, in fairness, they look after inter-county referees but nobody is listening to them.”
Nash appreciates the association won’t be recognised any time soon and has experienced opposition to his work. However, he is determined to see it through.
“I’ve received a couple of phone calls to let sleeping dogs lie and been told that there is no need for any organisation.
“Basically, [I’ve been] told to go away and not rock the boat.
“We won’t be recognised straight away but if our membership continues to grow things will change in time.”
Nash is currently drawing up a constitution for the association but intends getting as much feedback from referees and other match officials about what it should stand for.
Already being considered is a call for more transparency in the appointment of referees, adequate training programmes, a standard system of match passes for referees and other welfare issues.
The majority of support for the initiative has come from the grassroots but Nash claims to have been given endorsements by a number of inter-county referees.
“The official GAA National Referees’ Association is currently headed up by former referee Mick Curley but Nash insists the new body would work in conjunction with it.
“Those who responded to the questionnaire will now be sent an email with a draft blueprint for the association and asked for their feedback on it,” said Nash.
“We want everyone to know we’re not about criticising Croke Park. This is just about getting respect for referees.
“[Referees] have lost faith in the system. They don’t believe that if they get assaulted the punishment will be sufficient to match the crime. The case of Ray Matthews perfectly illustrates that.”