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comment Why starting at grass-roots level could prove a game changer when it comes to reform of the All-Ireland series

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A general view of Croke Park

A general view of Croke Park

A general view of Croke Park

I will begin with a promise.  This is my word on the infamous Option B.

But such was the seminal nature of the debate over the reform of the All-Ireland football championship that it is worth revisiting.

It was only the third time a meaningful reform of the GAA’s most significant competition was seriously contemplated.

Firstly, came the ground-breaking decision in 2000 to give teams a second chance in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

Then in 2017 delegates agreed to the introduction of the ultimately ill-fated Super 8s structure which is now consigned to the scrapheap.

The reform package which failed to secure the requisite 60 per cent support from delegates at the special Congress was due to be debated at the GAA Congress last spring.

However, due to Covid-19 restrictions the event was held remotely. Given the significance of the topic the GAA rightly decided the debate should be held in person.

Though the decision was unavoidable it probably was the death knell of what became known as Option B.

For starters, the GAA Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce (GFCRT) was disbanded at the spring Congress.

Established by former GAA President John Horan their remit ended when he left office last spring. So, there was nobody around to drive the campaign for change.

As it was a special GAA Congress the number of delegates from each county was halved.

However, the voting strength of the Central Council including the Management Committee remained unchanged.

So, effectively this group was more influential than they would be at an ordinary Congress. Given that eight of the 13 members of the Management Committee were effectively representing their provinces it’s not hard to guess how they voted.

Yet the proposal only fell 16 votes short of passing the 60 per cent threshold. 15 counties favoured change; 10 were definitely against and we’re not sure about seven others - including the two most dominant football counties, Kerry and Dublin.

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It is not just the All-Ireland football championship which is not fit for purpose; neither is the GAA Congress.

It is scarcely credible that nobody knows for sure how any of the 168 delegates actually vote.

Not a single voting delegate attends Congress in a personal capacity – they are there to present a unit of the organisation.

There should be no secrets at Congress when it comes to voting on policy issues.

But GAA politicians love their sense of importance and a motion from the Club Players Association to compel delegates to reveal how they vote was beaten out of sight a number of years ago.

All this sounds frightfully boring. But unless those who advocate change get a grip with the politics involved then their cause is hopeless.

The GPA, for example, are still wet behind the ears in comparison to the Provincial Councils in this area.

Unquestionably the Ulster Council had a co-ordinated campaign not just to vote against Option B but to have a string of delegates speak against the motion.

Amazingly, even though the Leinster football championship has been a basket case for a decade, Offaly’s Michael Duignan was the only speaker in favour of change from the province.

It would be useful for those seeking reform to reflect on how the campaign to remove the infamous ban on foreign games finally succeeded in 1971.

The late Tom Woulfe, a Dublin-based Kerry-born civil servant, led the campaign which lasted for more than a decade.

Woulfe first floated the idea in 1957. It was soundly defeated at the 1962, 1965 and 1968 GAA Congresses.

There was a three-year gap between the debates because under rule any motion supported by fewer than a third of the delegates could not be introduced again for three years.

But a seemingly innocuous motion proposed by Mayo in 1968 changed everything. Delegates accepted the proposal to examine the reasons behind the ban. Crucially the proposal included a provision for a referendum of all club members.

Not for the first time in a major organisation the grass-roots were years ahead of the top table.

There was overwhelming support from members in all but two of the 32 counties for the Ban to be dropped and it was removed without a whimper in 1971.

This was democracy from the ground-up and a similar approach could prove a game changer when it comes to the reform of the All-Ireland series.

And before they become too triumphant, the Provincial Councils need to be mindful that the players are the kingmakers. Even a veiled threat of declining to play in the provincial series would sound the alarm bells.

For the moment though a bit more transparency in the voting process might be enough to get a reform package through a full Congress.

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