What can be done about violence at GAA matches?

Brawls at a string of recent GAA football matches have led to concerns the game's reputation is being tarnished by violence. Claire Simpson reports

A video grab showing an on-pitch fight at a match between Slaughtneil and Ballinderry on Thursday

A PROLONGED fight, supporters confronted by angry players and a brawl which spilled into a nearby car park.

The violent scenes at Sunday's match between Downpatrick Russell Gaelic Union and Ballyholland Harps led some to compare them to an ugly punch-up following Khabib Nurmagomedov's win over Conor McGregor in the MMA Ultimate Fighting Championship over the weekend.

But this was a match in the small Co Down village of Kilcoo - not a global sporting event.

The match had already had to be re-arranged after the initial game was abandoned when a player received a head injury during an altercation.

And Sunday's match was disrupted by a row which Armagh legend Jarlath Burns described as "the worst I have ever seen".

Players from both teams sprinted off the pitch and vaulted a fence to weigh into an off-pitch fight near the ground's car park. Supporters also got involved.

Video footage showed some young children wandering across the pitch to watch the fracas.

The match later re-started and was won by Downpatrick 1-11 to 1-8.

Down GAA was contacted for comment. It is expected to hold an investigation into the latest fight between the rival teams.

Neither club could be reached for comment.

Warning: video contains scenes of violence and offensive language

The brawl follows a string of similar fights involving players and spectators. In Co Derry, a clash on Thursday between reserve players from Slaughtneil and Ballinderry Shamrocks spilled into the crowd - just a day after a game between Slaughtneil's senior team and Coleraine's Eoghan Rua was marred by violent scenes after the final whistle at Owenbeg.

Several weeks ago, a referee and one of his umpires were allegedly assaulted at the end of a match between Greenlough and Ballinascreen in Dungiven.

And last month, a mass fight broke out following a clash between Strabane and Stewartstown at Omagh, Co Tyrone.

Following violence at several matches in Derry, a spokesman for the county said its position "in relation to violence is clear".

"Derry GAA will make every effort to hold individuals accountable where there is evidence that they have broken rules," he said.

"We are aware of a number of alleged incidents and will take the appropriate action based on match referee reports."

It is understood the other incidents are being probed by the relevant county boards.

Mr Burns, a former Armagh star who is now chairman of the GAA's standing committee on playing rules, said the recent violence "looked terrible" for the game.

But he cautioned against a "knee-jerk" reaction.

"Until somebody says to me that there has been an X per cent increase in these incidents then I would question whether we are seeing (a rise)," he said.

"What we may be seeing is that more of these things are being videoed.

"It's a game that relies on aggression. It's an offensive game. From time to time these things will happen - not that that justifies the events that we have seen."

Mr Burns said while most clubs routinely video matches, even with documentary footage it is often difficult to tell exactly who was involved in violent scenes.

"If you give out fines or bans then they can be appealed," he said.

"A hearing then becomes a legal process - people's reputations are at stake.

"It's not a question of the association trying to ignore these things.

"Everything that has been suggested, the association has already looked at it."

Mr Burns said recent violent scenes at matches "look terrible".

He said he was particularly concerned about children witnessing violence.

During the brawl at last week's reserve match between Slaughtneil and Ballinderry, a young boy can clearly be seen wandering on to the pitch, close to fighting players.

"What must that child have thought, watching grown men fighting?" Mr Burns said.

However, he said there was no suggestion the GAA would return to high fences separating players and supporters.

"If you look at the GAA 15 years ago, we had big fences but after the Taylor Report into Hillsborough they were taken down," he said.

"Those fences that you can lean over are there to allow to spectators to evacuate on to the pitch if needed."

Following last week's violence, ex-Armagh player and All-Ireland winner John McEntee hit out at "thuggery" in the game.

He suggested the GAA's disciplinary procedures needed to be overhauled.

"There is a very strong disciplinary process," he said.

"But we would have to ask if that is a strong enough deterrent to stop people from taking part in this violent action.

"This is certainly not what we would want associated with our game."

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