As you’re all well aware, the story about the dispute between the County Board and the Mayo GAA Foundation continues to rumble on, with the questions raised by the latter set to be discussed at the next Board meeting, which is scheduled for this coming Wednesday evening.
At the same meeting next week, the barely credible no-show by Mayo GAA at last weekend’s Special GAA Congress in Cork will also, one imagines, be a hot topic of conversation. While the two issues are separate and distinct, their coincident occurrence suggests a linkage, one that, in turn, speaks to a wider concern. This relates to the pressure many voluntary officials within the GAA are coming under at the present time, a time of immense change in the organisation.
A piece in the Irish Independent earlier this week by Donnchadh Boyle (here) picked up on this theme. While our travails have got plenty of exposure in the national media of late, we’re far from the only county feeling the heat in relation to our off-field operations. The huge jump in costs and revenues facing County Boards everywhere this decade, along with increasing complexities in dealing with things like health and safety at sporting events, management of sponsorships, corporate governance and more, have placed an enormous burden on unpaid, voluntary officials.
Issues facing County Boards everywhere have changed out of all proportion in recent years, in particular for that small band of counties – ourselves included – who have striven to keep pace with the 800 lb. blue gorilla that enjoys seemingly limitless financial resources and has none of the money worries that keep the rest awake at night. But despite all this change, the same County Board structures – which worked okay in more benign times of old – are being asked to oversee a radically different and more challenging environment.
We’re not markedly different in this respect compared to many other counties. Our structures haven’t changed, we still largely do things – for good and ill – the way we always did. But what has changed for us in the last decade is that on-field our performance levels have shot up. That hugely welcome development from a playing perspective has injected into the system a whole new range of requirements that have had to be administered, resourced and supported. That this has at times proven to be a challenge shouldn’t be seen as a surprise: it would have been a greater shock if it hadn’t.
At the core of all this flux – not just in Mayo, but right across the island – is a push-pull between the amateur ethos in which the GAA is rooted and the brash, commercially-minded approach at the top – both on the field and off – which is straining to shift the GAA’s axis towards a world where money talks, and loudly. At club level, the GAA still exists pretty much in the same way as it always did – and in every parish it continues to be the glue that helps to stick this country together – whereas at inter-county level the march towards professional standards and structures has become all but unstoppable. It’s still one organisation but it’s now a machine with different parts moving in diametrically opposite directions.
It’s a tussle that threatens to pull the GAA, as we all know it, asunder. How far will professionalism go? How far, indeed, should it be allowed to go? How can the voluntarism that has sustained the GAA for well over a century be expected not just to survive but to underpin and support all this professionalism and its attendant demands? Will this voluntarism be sufficient to ensure that clubs keep running? What about the volunteers elected to serve on County Boards?
It’s at County Board level where the two opposing trends within the GAA today come face-to-face. The elected Board Officers are answerable to the clubs – this is, after all, still a democratic organisation – but it’s the inter-county game that’s box office, which means it’s also the insatiable beast that needs constant feeding.
Because of this, County Boards up and down the country are straining under the weight of responsibility thrust on them. Most are doing what they can to support their clubs, while having to look to these same clubs – as well as any other sources of funding they can lay their hands on – to pay the bills that keep coming in. All the while not forgetting about whatever day jobs and personal lives they might happen to have.
It has all the appearance of a powder keg. Mike Connelly said so himself – in that Indo piece linked above, he’s quoted as saying that “officers today are under serious pressure just to keep the whole show running” and that much of their time is spent firefighting.
The current concerns within Mayo GAA are, I believe, at least in part a symptom of this wider problem facing the organisation nationally. Sure, the particular dispute facing the County Board needs to be sorted – and my view has always been that quiet diplomacy is the best way to do this, as the megaphone rarely triumphs in this sphere – but it also needs to be recognised, from the top within the GAA, that County Boards across the whole island need help and they need it urgently.
If John Horan were better able to read the pulse of the organisation he currently heads a bit more accurately, it’s this unfolding crisis he’d have turned his attention to rather than the vanity project which got approval at the Special Congress down in Cork last weekend. In retrospect, maybe our county not being represented there could be viewed as an apposite metaphor for all that’s out of whack within the GAA right now.