Time to put your cards on the table
If there is one word to be taken from the annual congresses of the three main Gaelic games bodies this year it is ‘integration’. But what does it mean? It is reasonable to ask whether these stakeholders have reached the point of being on the same page, never mind agreeing the content of that page.
ut for the Covid interlude, a new memo of understanding may well have been agreed between the GAA and the Ladies’ Gaelic Football and Camogie Associations after the lapse in 2020. The ‘one club’ guidelines may have progressed further as well.
But an updated or new edition of these cannot diminish philosophical differences, competing priorities and confusion, reflected in the myriad spoken and written statements made about integration. Speaking and writing are integral to how and what we communicate, and our words and phrases correspond with belief patterns, cultural practices and policy objectives.
For instance, the short statement that at aged 10, girls are as good as boys at maths, hurling or Gaelic football is, on the face of it, a relatively anodyne one. It even generates a positive allure of equality. But because of its structure, the implication is that being good is more common or even natural for boys than girls. Individual words matter in their meaning. Amalgamation is not the same as merger. A new entity is typically established from a merger and those pre-existing dissolve or become defunct. This has legal and financial ramifications, including shared ownership of and responsibility for assets and liabilities.
There are advantages in terms of combining resources, economies of scale, removing barriers to expansion, diversification of activities, commercial power, and the creation of a stronger commercial entity overall. But the culture and identity of the target organisation can be lost in this. Whether it becomes a stronger social entity becomes a moot question.
In contrast, one entity acquires another in amalgamations: usually the bigger and financially stronger or stable one. This does not always result in the formation of a new organisation and there can be more leeway for cultural adaptation by all concerned.
What would any of this matter to a club player or volunteer? Perhaps little for those Gaelic codes already co-operating well as one club. Much more, possibly, for those whose club membership is on the decline or who do not own or have regular access to facilities. Women’s Gaelic codes spring to mind. But conceivably those to whom it matters most haven’t yet committed to Gaelic games — generations of young people to come whose future lies in our hands. What will integration and its legacy mean to them? Consider the following scenario.
Young girls, participants in a mixed underage county development session led by a highly regarded elite hurling coach, are instructed to practice with their imaginary sliotars. Meantime, their male peers are given the actual sliotars to practice striking from the hand.
One assumes, generously, that the camógs were to imagine what it was like to strike the sliotar, á la the finest mental imagery techniques. Yet this opportunity — if it was even conceived in this way — was neither rotated nor explained to any of the youth players. Nor were they allocated to mixed pairs when accessing the limited number of sliotars.
Only the young boys could physically feel the pressure on their hurls, see and hear the point of contact and make embodied formative judgements on elbow position, foot positioning, body weight transfer and so on, as well as observe the resulting trajectory of the sliotar.
This event, I assure you, was not the 1970s when the LGFA was formed. Nor was it in the 2000s, the centennial decade of the formation of camogie, a Unesco-listed element of intangible cultural heritage. In fact, it occurred within the last year. Meantime, an adult male coach disparaged under 12 boys in his group who were ‘pulling like girls’. To counteract this, he paired up with one and demonstrated how to pull against him. The young boy in question did not return to hurling because of the physical force that was used against him by this adult.
Both are real-world coaching events, recounted by the young players who queried why this had happened, without any satisfactory answers. Both examples tear to shreds any and all words used to convey a commitment to equality, unity, integration, co-operation, or even simple mutual respect. Words and actions matter. Profoundly. And lest you have not yet observed, six different terms have already been cited in this piece, all used by the four main stakeholders (including the GPA) under the ambit of integration. Evidently, it is far more than a modest practical matter.
Being one of the youngest attendees at Central Council meetings of the LGFA in their relative infancy, was a tutelage for me: in diplomacy, relationship-building, governance, and the realities of life in women’s sports. I can thank LGFA founder, Mick Fitzgerald, personally for this and all the delegates of the time. It allowed me to observe first-hand the organisation’s need and desire to grow and to establish a governance structure that was fit for this purpose — one that could shift the balance of power and assert the right to be an equal partner in the Gaelic games family.
The Congress motions this year are an upshot of this journey, reflective too of the foresight to build strategic relationships, independently, with commercial partners and sponsors such as TG4 and then Lidl. A key enabler was the creation in the mid-1990s of a full-time CEO role, filled by then president, Helen O’Rourke.
By 2024, the LGFA’s 50-year anniversary, O’Rourke will have held this role for more than half its organisational lifetime. Meantime, the number of registered camogie players in Ireland and abroad has reached over 100,000 and the Camogie Association’s national development plan cites parity for the sport as a clear priority. (Parity is seventh in the integration lexicon.)
GAA Ard Stiúrthóir, Tom Ryan, wrote in his 2021 annual report that a keen appetite existed to move to closer alignment (number eight) between the three main Gaelic bodies but that the precise shape and form could not be unilateral and would emerge over time. In its current strategic plan, Aontas 2026 Towards One GAA For All, ‘six codes, one association’ is listed as one of the GAA’s top five priorities.
A shared vision and a roadmap are to be produced to make a merged association happen in an efficient and effective way. For some, however, practicalities are preferable at this point compared to the hurdle of an organisational merger. Indeed, current LGFA president, Micheál Naughton, acted quickly after the LGFA’s Congress to assert his views on organisational autonomy over its own rules whatever the future holds.
If integration is now the agreed chant, and practicalities are a means to this end, what of equality? This year’s GPA motion, an instructive example of athlete activism globally, has now challenged the three organisations to clearly show their cards on this issue — not only within management and closed committees but to everyone within the Gaelic games family. There is less room now, than ever before, for constructive ambiguity.
If there is anything to be learned from other sporting mergers worldwide, power inequalities are preserved when cards are held close to the chest on what equality means. The positions occupied by males and females, and who sets agendas, also play a key role in the outcome.
In international women’s soccer, a policy of integration was shown in some cases (like Brazil, China, and Italy) to sustain the view of the women’s game being subaltern to its male counterpart. If you are already big brother’s little sister, would you agree to a situation in which this would likely prevail? And what practical benefits would outweigh this for you? Because women’s soccer had entered the public discourse and attracted considerable public attention in these countries, integration became a sporting necessity (a solution to the declining performances of women’s international teams) but also a social justice and equality issue.
A One Club model for the practical sharing of resources between male and female Gaelic codes within a small parish that has limited playing facilities and operational inefficiencies is one thing. But any initiatives that put equality into practice is a different matter. This will likely require oversight by an overarching body to achieve convergence, including governments besides, by virtue of public funds allocated to Gaelic games.
Authentic leadership is required too to improve the environment for integration, thereby avoiding co-option and ‘fixing the women or men’. Players and club officials want action: on a shared fixture list, allocation of pitches and so on. A logistical challenge that will require creativity around seasonal schedules, if for no other reason than to allow grass to replenish.
Officials must confront other questions however: those of future sustainability, financial (in)dependence, commercial investment, and limits on resources. So, what was the GPA motion and is the idea of integration an unstoppable force, as portrayed by former GAA president Liam O’Neill? For if we know anything for sure, it is that we cannot predict the future with certainty.
Proposed by the GPA, motion 33 was first passed at the GAA’s Congress by almost 90 per cent of the eligible 183 votes. Of the 15,000 respondents to the GAA’s public survey for Aontas 2026, around 81 per cent felt the three main Gaelic associations should strive to form one association. Over 10 per cent disagreed and the remainder were unsure.
The wording of the GPA motion named the prioritisation of integration with the LGFA and Camogie Association to jointly ensure equal investment, opportunity, and recognition for all genders to play all sports in the Gaelic games family. Speaker for the motion, Maria Kinsella, co-chair of the GPA, also argued it would help to address the significant under-representation of females in the GAA at the higher levels. This is ninth in the integration lexicon. It was, she said, an opportunity for the biggest sporting and cultural organisation to tell women and girls that they are equals. Though no one appears to have spoken against the motion at the GAA congress, roughly 10 per cent, voted against it, yet unknown.
Who were these and why did they do so? What can we learn from these and the 19 per cent of survey respondents? Do people need to be better versed first, of their own organisational histories, of what equality means and of the milestones and pitfalls on the journey towards integration before they can take an informed view? Is everyone cognisant yet of what might be the overall equality gains and what concessions are necessary?
Prior to their congresses in March and April, all female county captains wrote to county boards and their national leaderships, in football and camogie, to seek assurances for the prioritisation of integration. The GPA could not propose a motion of its own at the LGFA congress. Instead, they called for support for the Galway motion which proposed that the LGFA’s rule 13 be amended to read: The association unite with the GAA with the aim of becoming a partnership of equals. The outcome was the passing of the GPA-worded motion, adopted by way of an amendment from the floor. Delegates voted in favour by 67-8: another unknown 10 per cent dissension.
Weeks later, the Ard Comhairle of the Camogie Association presented a motion to their annual congress. This called for a single integrated Gaelic Games organisation, a commitment to gender equity as a core value (tenth in the lexicon) and equitable access to full participation in Gaelic games.
By any measure, the choice of the term equity over equality was surely deliberate. Prior to their congress, Camogie Association president Hilda Breslin called for integration on an equal footing, not assimilation or a takeover as she put it, and for additional resources to be put to this. If it were to happen now, she claimed “we would be one association”. But would this be based on equality or equity? Each can lead to dramatically different outcomes.
Equality means that each organisation is given the same resources or opportunities. It is potentially fair-minded when everyone starts from the same point. But this is patently not the case in Gaelic games, and even more so for rounders and handball. Equity, however, allocates the resources and opportunities needed to reach an agreed outcome or threshold. This is potentially even-handed and justifiable when there are sufficient resources to go around.
Camogie’s Motion 19 was passed by 97 per cent, the GPA tweeting that this was another step towards amalgamation. Three per cent voted against for reasons yet unknown, the smallest group of dissenters among the main stakeholders.
It appears that the time has come for collective clarity, strategic vision, and action. Once agreement is reached between the sporting bodies on what integration means, governance possibilities exist on a continuum from greater alignment and affiliation to amalgamation or a merged association. Will any moves in this direction be formally underpinned by equality or equity? Can predictable zero-sum games be sufficiently mitigated about who must lose for another to gain reasonable and regular access to facilities and resources? And will the governing bodies commit to the creation of an overarching confederation or even a transition body to take things forward?
If not, future generations are next in the legacy line. They need to understand now how gender inequalities are reflected within the sports industry before they can be shown how to action changes in their lives at any level: in the changing rooms, volunteering as a club member or as a coach, as a player, chairperson of a committee or when in a paid sports role. After all, even in our imaginations, there are only so many sliotars to go around.
Dr Katie Liston is a senior researcher at Ulster University since 2008, and the holder of national titles in athletics, Gaelic games, soccer, and rugby.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/time-to-put-your-cards-on-the-table-41626247.html Time to put your cards on the table