"158 is an incredible mandate but that mandate only lasts tonight..." New GAA President Jarlath Burns focussed on the future

Next GAA President Jarlath Burns is welcomed home to Silverbridge on Saturday night. Picture: Glenn Murphy
Next GAA President Jarlath Burns is welcomed home to Silverbridge on Saturday night. Picture: Glenn Murphy Next GAA President Jarlath Burns is welcomed home to Silverbridge on Saturday night. Picture: Glenn Murphy

NONE were spotted actually breaking into song, but even the Tyrone and Down delegations were smiling when ‘The Boys from the County Armagh’ rang out in Croke Park on Friday night.

Jarlath Burns, the boy from Silverbridge, had been confirmed as the next President of the GAA after his landslide victory in the election at Congress and Ulster rivalries were set aside amid the joyous celebrations.

The quota was 138 and Burns sailed past it with 158 first preference votes – Pat Teehan was a distant second on 70 and Donegal’s Niall Erskine was even further back on 49. The defeated candidates paid generous tributes to Burns who was greeted by an army in the blue and yellow of his native Silverbridge Harps when he left the Congress hall.

“It’s an incredible honour,” said Burns, who hopes to maintain a connection with St Paul’s High School (“my car knows itself how to get there every morning”) throughout his presidency.

“I feel it really for my club and my family because when you belong to a club you really belong to a community and the GAA is wonderful at doing that.

“The Silverbridge club has raised me right from when I was infant, they gave me my first football, they gave me my first value and taught me the importance of giving and not receiving.

“I have spent all of my life in those fields and tonight everybody knows where Silverbridge is and if that’s the only thing that I’ve achieved tonight, it’s a good start.”

Wearing a tie that had belonged to his late father Colman and with the Pioneer pin given to him by Silverbridge stalwart Mickey Trainor on his lapel, the GAA’s 41st President reflected on the overwhelming mandate he had received from Congress delegates.

“To get 158 is an incredible mandate but that mandate only lasts tonight,” he said.

“It doesn't matter whether you win by one or whatever it is, it's an enormous responsibility and the more I think of it, the more I feel it weighs on me! It is a great honour. I've a very clear vision of where I want this Association to be when I leave it.

“If I don't get there, because it's so clear, I know I will feel like I have failed.

“So many people have said to me along the way that it's difficult when you're President to achieve the change that you want and you have to begin by inspiring people to believe in your vision and then you have to gain consensus and then you move on to get that change but it has to be incremental.”

THE developments he intends to make are ambitious. He wants to restore the GAA’s amateur ethos which has been eroded over the years. He hopes to unite the GAA, the LGFA and the Camogie Association and he wants to bring order to the runaway train of inter-county training.

“Every county I went into were telling me they are overwhelmed by the amount of money they are having to spend,” he said.

“That spending is giving us a tremendous dividend if you look at the high performance culture that exists and you don't want to be seen as a Luddite to be pulling that back but you have to remember we do have an amateur status and if you look at the amateur status that exists in American universities, they are very robust in protecting that. I don't think we are protecting it strongly enough with regard to the number of times we are asking our players to train, their cardiovascular load and the number of backroom teams, the size of panels...

“I really want to work with the GPA, as the representatives of the players, to try and find a proper balance that means that counties can run a county team but they can also then build infrastructure that they need to.”

He rejects the notion that whatever the future brings - whether it’s reducing training (during the National League), improving facilities or the integration of the GAA, the Camogie Association and the LGFA will be ‘his legacy’.

“I’m going to be clear on this: I do not want a legacy,” he said.

“Three years in an organisation like the GAA… Forget about a legacy. We operate through our strategic plan and it lasts until 2026 and part of that is integration.

“I come from a club that doesn’t even understand what a non-integrated club looks like. Our ladies have been very much a part of our club since they were founded, so it won’t be shock therapy for me to work with that.”

The growth of the female sports over the last 20 years has left many clubs absolutely bursting at the seams and the lack of real estate is a major issue. While acknowledging that’s a good problem to have, Burns hopes to begin to address it.

“There is a serious lack of places to play our games,” he said.

“140 years from the inception of our Association, if that’s the biggest crisis that we have, isn’t that a wonderful place where we are?

“If we are going to divide our assets in three which is what we would be doing with integration and rightfully so I think it would need to come with a massive injection of facilities for us. Because remember these organisations are administering a huge chunk of Irish culture – our games which are unique to us.

“We in Ireland have a huge responsibility to put the proper infrastructure in so that they are fit for purpose. People might say: ‘No, spend that money on the health service’ but if you spend it on the GAA you are spending it on positive, healthy, wellbeing things. You get people walking and playing… I know from being principal of a school that one of the things that helps people’s mental health is belonging to something, feeling that they belong.

“The GAA tagline is: ‘Where we all belong’ and in terms of mental health, which is such an issue around the country, if we can continue to invest properly in the GAA and in fields, well maybe we’ll not have invest as much in wards.”

Congress Highlights

THE Motion to return to Under 18 for the minor age group at inter-county level was heavily defeated at GAA Congress.

After a detailed, eye-opening presentation by former Dublin footballer Dr Pat O’Neill which outlined the very real injury risks that over-training and playing can cause for teenagers, delegates debated the motion.

It was opposed by Gaelic Players’ Association chief Tom Parsons who said the issue of increasing the age of minor from 17 to 18 was “100 per cent about multiple eligibility” in that talented players would be pressed into service with too many teams including at senior level.

Donegal delegate Sean Dunnion, chairman of the GAA’s Scientific and Welfare Committee, told Congress: “We should not revert to U18, it would be a retrograde step from a player welfare perspective”.

Armagh spoke out against the motion as did Antrim representative Terry Reilly who said: “We have a duty of care to our young people and it’s important we take the moral and correct decision.”

The motion was defeated after attracting only 32.4 per cent support.

CONGRESS backed a proposal for all counties to appoint a specialist demographic officer/committee. The issue of demographics – the movement of people from rural to urban areas – was described by Tyrone’s Benny Hurl, who recommended Motion as: “The single greatest threat to the GAA”.

He added: “Our clubs are saying that it’s the biggest single threat to their existence and County Boards don’t have the tools to address demographic issues.”

Delegates from several counties back the motion which was carried with 75.7 per cent of support.

MOVING the goalposts will no longer be advantageous. A new rule has been brought in (none previously existed) so that a free kick or sideline ball can be retaken if an opposition player is seen pushing the posts in an attempt to put them off. Giving the posts a shake is an old-school tactic at club level and Dublin’s Evan Comerford tried it in last year’s All-Ireland Championship.

“I don’t think anybody expects widespread shaking to the goalposts,” said David Hasson, introducing the motion. It’s just to close this loophole.”