It’s GAA convention season, in case you hadn’t noticed, and whether by accident or design, an important theme has been running through the many end-of-year reports and speeches scripted by under pressure and, in some cases, under-fire county board officers.
First up to the podium in kickstarting a discussion as to the ever-increasing workload on volunteers serving at county board level was Cork’s Tracey Kennedy.
In her speech to last Sunday’s Cork convention, Kennedy revealed she had, earlier this month, contemplated stepping down as chairperson.
“The last couple of weeks have been incredibly difficult for me as I struggled to juggle the demands of a new job with the realisation of the scale of our financial challenges (Cork incurred a deficit of €559k in 2019), and there is no doubt that during the past week I descended into self-pity, wondering if it would be better for my own mental and physical health if I just walked away from it all.”
Two nights later in Tralee, Kennedy’s Kerry counterpart, Tim Murphy, said the main governance challenge facing the association is volunteers being held to account in areas where they may not have adequate time to dedicate themselves to or sufficient expertise.
“The workload and expectations of our volunteers, at all levels, has increased at an exponential rate. The challenge we face on foot of this is attracting and keeping good people involved in the association,” the Kerry chairman told delegates.
As Murphy alluded to, the brief of the county board officer is ever-widening. And yet, as we have seen in Mayo and Clare this week, there is little thanks for attempting to keep your house in order.
Mayo secretary Dermot Butler, in his report to convention, touched on the “torrent of abuse” he and fellow officers were subjected to in 2019.
“People must remember that the officers carry out their duties in a voluntary capacity and, while we don’t always do things right, we do do our best for Mayo GAA,” Butler wrote.
In Clare, the abuse aimed at secretary Pat Fitzgerald by one social media account reached such a level that it is now the subject of a Garda investigation.
At the October meeting of the Clare board, Michael O’Neill of Ballyea, who was part of the selection committee which recommended Brian Lohan for the position of Clare manager, said it will be a challenge in the future to recruit people onto the board because of the criticism levelled at current officers.
“My own family have often said it to me, why would you want to go onto [a selection committee] when you see what is put up about you on social media.”
Whatever about the flak county board personnel come in for, Cork chairperson Kennedy believes the workload alone is discouraging certain individuals from putting themselves forward for roles.
said Kennedy: “I wholeheartedly agree with what Tim Murphy said in relation to the governance challenge facing the association. The GAA has become more and more professional in how it’s operated and what is expected of its units, which is not a bad thing, but what county officers are now being asked to deal with is, possibly, going beyond the limit of what a volunteer can do.
“I worry are we saying these are roles that can only be done by someone who is retired, somebody who has a less demanding job or, perhaps, someone who doesn’t have family commitments. If I was a nurse working night shifts or a doctor, would I be able to do the role of chairperson? There are so many ways we are excluding people from possibly becoming county board officers because of the demands placed on us.”
She added: “It is a privilege to chair your county and I am definitely not doing the ‘poor me’ thing, it is just that the workload has grown so much that you wonder how people can fit it all in. There are times of the year when your role could mean you are out every night of the week. If I was starting off now, in my current job as a secondary school principal, there is no way I would be considering a county officer role.”
One potential solution offered by Kennedy is increasing the number of full-time staff within each board.
“We have done that in Cork off our own bat. We have brought in a Rebel Óg administrator to ease the load on our volunteers at underage level. We have brought in Aidan O’Connell to deal with the elite aspects of our operation. We have brought in Conor Counihan to drive the football plan. Look at all the counties appointing commercial managers.
“Undoubtedly, those people ease the load on volunteers, but they also cost money. Everyone can see where our finances are at. If we want to continue supporting our volunteers with extra administrative staff, that money has to come from somewhere.
“Do we need a strategy as an association overall for how we operate in terms of our paid staff and volunteers?
Kennedy, not that she should, hasn’t a single regret in making the honest admission she did last Sunday: “If a job is difficult, there is no harm in saying that. It means people working close to me understand the pressure I am under. We had a county chairpersons’ meeting last Saturday and that same sentiment was echoed in the room. We are all finding the load heavy. I don’t see any problem in articulating that.”
As this past week showed, nor do others.