The Irish club season has been put on hold with the blanket cancellation of the first series of EY Hockey League matches — the sport’s marquee competition — due to a dispute over umpire remuneration.
The umpire’s body, the IHUA, say that Hockey Ireland failed to engage in meaningful dialogue for the past six years to address their concerns. Aggrieved at a lack of movement, no appointments were made by the IHUA for tomorrow’s opening games.
In reply, Hockey Ireland’s working group for the league put together a contingency plan on Monday, requesting clubs to independently source umpires so that matches could go ahead.
However, by Wednesday evening, it became clear that enough suitable officials could not be found to step into the breach with fears from club coaches — similar to the 2012 NFL referee lock-out — a lower standard of umpire could lead to significant impact on the leagues.
Last year’s men’s regular season — which brings the winner a European ticket and televised matches — was decided on goal difference while the women’s went down to the last five minutes of the season between UCD and Hermes/Monkstown before the former emerged victorious. In such a light, fears of the long-term outcome of a big decision were well-founded.
As such, following submissions from clubs and the lack of officials available, the working group pulled the plug on Saturday and will now “monitor the situation” in the coming days to see if next week’s programme can take place.
The main bone of contention for the umpires centres on their current rates. While the standards for players on the field have increased dramatically, umpires expenses remain at an unchanged level. Currently, umpires will receive 20 cent per kilometre to cover travel expenses with a €20 addition for travel outside of their home province.
The IHUA want to introduce a €70 fee per team per EY Hockey League match and a €55 rate for other Irish level competitions like the Irish Senior and Junior Cups.
Explaining their position, IHUA chairman Warren McCully said: “Given the Board of Hockey Ireland’s total inaction over many months and years, the current situation is very unhealthy. We simply get ignored which is highly disrespectful to all qualified umpires who dedicate themselves to the sport. Our members are bitterly disappointed at the prospect of not being involved in Irish competitions which are due to commence this weekend. That said; our members fully understand the gravity of the situation and the wider consequences for the future of umpiring. If Hockey Ireland wants to properly discuss all the issues, we would welcome that but we will not be made scapegoats in this long running saga.”
From Hockey Ireland’s perspective, they view the umpires’ requests as a fundamental shift from being volunteers to being professional.
To make this step, Hockey Ireland’s chief executive Jerome Pels says that this is not simply a matter for the organisation’s board to approve and impose the fees with club support required to make it happen.
“Hockey in Ireland has up to this point run as a volunteer driven sport,” Pels said. “A change in major policy — paying officials — is not something currently in any endorsed policy or strategy. Such change is not supported at this stage by the Board as the Board feels the proposal — as presented — is very unlikely to be supported at club (member) level.
“A proposal from the IHUA for payment of umpires would need to be put before the members at an AGM. The Board is not authorised to implement such policy without AGM approval.”
For the hockey public, it delays their chance to see some of the stars of the summer in the flesh, the players who helped Ireland to the brink of dual World Cup qualification.
The women’s league looks particularly competitive with Cork Harlequins bolstering their ranks with Roisin Upton available for a full season while Julia O’Halloran has returned from Railway Union in Dublin.
Belfast Harlequins and Pembroke — both strugglers last term — have added serious quality with the Ulster side luring Zoe Wilson back from Germany along with Irish international Lizzie Colvin. Pembroke add midfielders Emily Beatty and Gillian Pinder.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved