Páraic Duffy:‘There’s no question of the GAA not wanting to make change’

Paraic Duffy takes a break from work. Picture: Inpho/Donall Farmer

Páraic Duffy is an easy target of criticism for GAA dissenters but the organisation has continued to evolve on his watch, writes Damian Lawlor

Director General Páraic Duffy is an easy target of criticism for GAA dissenters but the organisation has continued to evolve on his watch

It’s early morning, and

Páraic Duffy is already en route from his apartment to Croke Park and the lift that takes him to his sixth-floor office high in the Hogan Stand.

The GAA’s 18th Ard-Stiúrthóir is a quiet man. He enjoys the stillness of an early start. Much can be achieved while the outside world is still sleeping.

At 12.45pm, Duffy skips down to the cafe in the GAA museum to grab a sandwich, arriving early to beat the lunchtime rush. Soon he is back at his desk, working until the city streets have shut up shop and slipped into evening mode. He likes to get out of HQ by six o’clock, but when the phones ring, he tends to lose track of time. And the phones seldom stop ringing.

Colleagues speak of his tremendous work ethic, but Duffy — now eight years into the job — shrugs shoulders at the mention of it, as if to ask what else would he be doing?

His staff express a genuine hope he will remain beyond 2017 and the expiry date of a two-year extension to his seven-year term. Most of the delegates, administrators and executives within the association seem to share that sentiment.

Duffy has a rich GAA pedigree — his father, Mickey, served as Monaghan chairman for 21 unbroken years — though as he admits, his own playing CV is modest: “I played with Faughs, and the standout memory was a minor championship medal in 1968.

“My position was goalkeeper, and I got called up once to play in goal for the county minors, against Louth. But I let in two goals and wasn’t invited back. As a footballer, I have to admit I was extremely limited.”

He took up teaching, was the first lay principal at St Macartan’s Monaghan, his alma mater, and stayed there for 11 years before applying for, and winning, the job as Player Welfare Manager at Croke Park.

He had progressed in Monaghan GAA administration in any case. Secretary of the minor board, youth chairman, and then vice-chairman. PRO from 1978. County board chairman in 1983.

His term as county board chairman coincided with Monaghan’s most successful period on the playing field as they captured the National League for the first and only time and also came within a whisker of reaching the All-Ireland final when, in 1985, they lost to Kerry after a replay. He served as a selector during Sean McCague’s tenure as manager from 1983 to 1987.

His involvement with teams continued into the new millennium when he was the International Rules tour manager in Australia in 2001, and he fulfilled a similar role on two junior tours Down Under.

It was his appointment as head of the Games Administration Committee, however, that brought him to national prominence. The GAA bore many scars of battle from trying to sort out fixtures and disciplinary issues: two thorns in the side of the association. Before Duffy came on board, for example, court injunctions were all the rage as suspended players tried to beat the system.

He was appointed Director General in spring 2008 and brought with him commercial realism while trying to safeguard the GAA’s core values.

Duffy’s is an unglamorous job at times, but he is fair and honourable, thoughtful, and respectful, and his utterances in the matter ring true.

“This is a job you couldn’t do unless you really enjoyed it,” he says. “There are days when you say what the hell am I doing here. But they very rarely occur. I still get a great challenge and enjoyment from the job.”

People have tried to call him out on a range of issues. He still gets darts for overseeing the introduction of Sky to the world of GAA. His reluctance to make stop-gap, haphazard moves on player welfare brought accusations of not caring. There’s a perception the GAA are obsessed with gate receipts and the bottom line, and Duffy gets heat for that too.

Some barbs have turned personal. But Duffy doesn’t want any violins played on his behalf.

“You’d be disappointed with some comments because you know they are unfair, but by and large, it’s all part of job. I don’t get inordinate criticism too often.

“Sometimes I feel the GAA gets a raw deal in terms of coverage and scrutiny but it would be worse if no-one was interested. Actually the worst criticism we get is from GAA people. GAA people have no problem criticising other units of the association — you don’t find that to the same degree in other sports. Maybe that’s healthy, I don’t know — there’s no point moaning about it anyway.”

We meet for a chat three weeks after a Congress where the tone was often cantankerous. Some motions the GAA supported were shot down. But on a range of issues delegates let it be known change was needed. Some proposed changes were denied only by the failure to get a two-thirds majority.

Duffy is happy enough with how it went. He invested years in trying to lessen the burden on youngsters and feels that in moving U21 to U20, and minor to U17, significant strides have been made.

That two-thirds majority was what prevented further progress. In many way, it’s an outdated mechanism that hinders progress at Congress. Duffy is open to rewriting the rule, but laughs at the irony that would entail: “Well, at a recent meeting our president pointed out that for the two-thirds ruling to change, it will take a two-thirds vote!”

The glorious idiosyncrasy of the GAA. It must be highly frustrating as director general of an organisation — holding so much clout and yet having much of it diluted when it comes to making big decisions. You wonder would the association also function more efficiently if management were left run affairs instead of the floor being thrown open to the entire country?

“This is how the GAA is run,” Duffy shrugs. “And it’s the beauty of it in many ways. Everyone has their say.” Not a week goes by, for instance, when he doesn’t give valuable time sifting through a proposal by some hurler on the ditch to revamp the football championship.

Years have been spent trying to map out a more equitable route to All-Ireland glory, but far from dismissing the unsolicited advice, Duffy respectfully ponders it — just in case some nugget of wisdom might emerge. “It’s amazing the submissions you get from people looking to crack the code. I always read them in case somewhere along the line a fella will have a Eureka moment.”

Sometimes there are glints of promise, but there’s always a flaw.

“This is our biggest challenge,” he admits. “But there is still a belief within the association that we should retain the provincial championships, and once you accept that, the opportunity to change the overall structure is very limited.

“As long as the provincial champions are rewarded with a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, they are still valued. So it’s very difficult make significant change. If we were to start from scratch we’d be in the perfect position with 32 counties. It’s the perfect number and you can do so many things with that.

“But instead we are working with a structure that tells us we must play provincial championships and they must be meaningfully linked to the All-Ireland campaign. As long as that’s the view, we’re only tinkering with any future change.”

All 32 counties demand to play in the All-Ireland championship too. When the GAA offered a B competition to the perennially weak, the gesture was thrown back in their faces. Seven days before Congress, Duffy and Aogáin Ó Fearghail knew they were nursing a dead duck. They made one last attempt to ascertain why.

Splitting the eight counties, they each rang four. All eight counties were on message: No chance. Convinced that in such circumstances you cannot force change on people, Duffy pulled the plug on it there and then.

“I spoke to Paddy Joe Ryan from Waterford. It is never easy for them but Paddy Joe spoke of how Waterford beat Kerry 50 years ago and said they keep playing in the hope of another win out of the blue.” Offering the winner of a B competition a springboard back into the championship proper was the only hope of the system working, but Duffy is not in favour.

“Could you justify bringing the B winners into the round before the All-Ireland quarter-final when two Division One teams may have met earlier, with one of them being eliminated? It would be very hard to justify that teams playing in a lesser competition would come into the business end of the championship.

“Look, it’s a headache. There’s no question here of the GAA not wanting to make change, but there has to be absolute agreement to try something else and so far that has proved impossible.” Duffy looks at other sports, always open to ideas that might enhance the GAA. The night before we chatted, he had watched Tottenham live on TV, and he is a long-standing Boston Celtics fan: “I’ve been to the East Coast quite a bit, and to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, to the New England Patriots in Foxboro, and to the Celtics in the old Boston Garden.” He also loves basketball and athletics. The Steve Ovett-Seb Coe rivalry, in particular, caught his eye. But of course, he adds, there is no sport like hurling or football.

He’s not long back from a trip to Washington for the St Patrick’s Day festivities and has an interest in most things American. Two decades back, a cousin was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and Duffy spent a few weeks on the Democratic campaign trail, touring the east coast via Newark, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Philadelphia.

Duffy has an evolving vision for his association and husbands diligently an often uneven landscape. He harnesses and transforms the terrain around him. Bit by bit. Knowing not to rush those who work the land. If he were a farmer he would, you suspect, be an organic one.

He prefers to deflect credit: “People work hard for those changes we make. Not just me.” But change seems to be ongoing when it comes to Gaelic football. After the introduction of ‘The Mark’, one of football’s most high-profile figures, Aidan O’Shea, called for an end to the ‘rule tinkering’.

Duffy doesn’t entirely agree that there have been too many major changes to the game but he understands O’Shea’s comments.

“I accept them, to an extent,” he says. “I don’t like to see a lot of changes, but there have been very few of a major nature... bar the black card and the advantage rule, both of which have helped.

“The only other big change is the mark, and there has been a knee-jerk reaction to that. This is only a very limited form of the mark we are bringing in and people don’t have to use it if they don’t want to. To preserve a dying skill (high fielding) is the reason for us bringing it in, but I don’t think it will have a major impact on how the game is played.

“You don’t want continual change but there are things about football that frustrate people and we have to look at that too.” At least football, for all its flaws, has raised a frisson of excitement in recent seasons across counties like Monaghan, Cavan, Roscommon, and Tipperary.

But hurling’s economy is still dependent on old money. The same aristocrats dine at the top table and Duffy is not overly hopeful of newcomers joining them any time soon. The priority, he says, is to foster a marketplace where 12 counties can do good business with each other.

“And we are not 100 miles away from there either,” he argues. “We already have eight who could beat each other on any given day. Bringing on Laois, Wexford, Kerry, and Antrim is now the trick — another four below the top eight to make the grade.

“To go below again is not realistic. They have not broken through in over 100 years. Those who are strong, keep them strong. And get the next four up.” In this context though, surely the GAA could be doing a lot more? Until lately they turned a blind eye while funding intended for hurling projects was channeled toward football teams. They fund five designated hurling counties but it’s a shovel in a snowstorm when a snow plough is needed.

“We give those counties €50,000 a year but it’s not even about the money,” Duffy says. “It’s about doing things the best possible way.” And yet, and yet. Dublin GAA gets around €1.46 million a year — more than the other 31 counties combined. At least one Dublin footballer pulls in more through commercial endorsements than Co Leitrim manages in sponsorship.

Fair enough, Dublin need money for numbers alone — after all, Ballyboden have more registered players than Leitrim — but Duffy insists we’re looking in the wrong place for answers.

“Money is not the only solution. It’s important, but only a small part. Look at what Cavan and Monaghan have achieved with, proper structures and quality programming and coaching. Does money give you that? You can take Leitrim or Carlow, give them all the money you like, but would they start winning all around them?

“People miss the bigger picture. Money clearly makes a difference but it’s not the answer to everything. The GAA is growing in Dublin and people are complaining that they are too powerful, but only 20 years ago we were criticised because the GAA was dead in Dublin. They can’t have it both ways.”

One way counties could attract funding would be Ireland winning the right to stage the 2023 Rugby World Cup, worth an estimated €250m to the national economy. As part of the bid, the GAA have agreed to host games at grounds in Dublin, Belfast, Thurles, Cork, Limerick, Galway, and Castlebar.

What a potential windfall for Croke Park! Remember the €36 million earned in rent from the IRFU and FAI between 2007 and 2010?

Duffy, meanwhile, doesn’t fear the upcoming Euro 2016 championship will harm the GAA. Nor does he accept recent mutterings from the GPA that some of their proposals get too little airtime from Croke Park.

“That’s unfair,” Duffy counters. “We do take on board the views of the GPA and they are the views of county players. That charge came in relation to the football championship restructuring proposals, but the GPA motion didn’t curry favour because it would have meant a huge increase in the number of games and a dramatically adverse effect on clubs.

“There is no way we rejected that submission because it was theirs. Had it come from Monaghan or Cavan, it would have been handled the same. If the GPA think they got a poor hearing, they are wrong — in fact because it came from the players, they got a hearing they wouldn’t have received had they proposed it on behalf of another group or county.

“They’re there and we have a good relationship with them. It can be tetchy from time to time but I don’t have a problem with that. We do listen to them but we have other views and units to take into account as well.” Right now Duffy’s main priority is implementing the rule and policy changes harvested at Congress. His task is to streamline, organise, interpret, and render transparent all that comes with change. It’s largely unseen work, attacked early in the mornings and refined during long days. It can be grinding, complex work, sometimes thankless, and technical too.

For Páraic Duffy, however, it’s all part of the charm of a job he loves.

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