Does Racism Matter to the GAA?

Back Story

Back in December a Gaelic Footballer, Aaron Cunningham, was racially abused during an Ulster Football Championship match against Kilcoo. Cunningham, who plays for the famous Crossmaglen club, played everything by the book: he reported the incident to the referee during the game – he alleged he’d been called a nigger – and left them to act.

At the end of the game stories also circulated that racial abuse had been directed towards Cunningham from sections of the crowd. It hadn’t been a great night for anyone connected with the Kilcoo club.

The next part of the story reflects well on the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the governing body. They moved quickly – the President of the Ulster GAA, Aogan Ó Fearghail, was in the media the following day. This quote from his statement to the BBC:

“We do not tolerate any form of racism whatsoever. So when an allegation is made it has to be investigated, we have to have evidence, we have to be fair to everybody… then our rules are very, very clear: conduct unbecoming a member of the association and that can incur a minimum of eight weeks or a maximum of a lifetime ban”

Kilcoo also promised to co-operate fully and, according to the official Ulster GAA statement, on 13 December (just 11 days after the incident) two players were banned. Brothers Aidan and Darryl Brannigan were banned for six months and four months respectively. The earliest media report of the ban I can find is 21 December.

In the New Year it was reported that the bans of the players had been reduced on appeal. Two of the big media outlets – BBC and Belfast Telegraph – carry the story on 8 January that Aidan’s ban was reduced to 16 weeks and Darryl’s ban was overturned completely. This was confirmed 10 days later by the GAA’s official statement, which also announces this decision was taken on 20th December. The day BEFORE the media reported the original ban.

The final ban handed out in the sorry affair was to an unnamed Kilcoo fan who was found guilty of racial abuse at the game – he (or she) got a lifetime ban.

A problem with race?

Back at the inception of the GAA in 1884 it was set up to preserve Irish national sports and therefore presides over sports played primarily by Irish Catholics, who tend to be almost exclusively white. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just a fact. It is also a fact that in a year of playing GAA – as someone who is non-white, non-Irish and non-Catholic – I’ve never had a moments bother from any of the opposition or fans. In fact, I’ve had nothing but kind words and encouragement, although it should be noted I’m not very good so never become much of a target for abuse!

Racism isn’t thought to be a huge problem in the GAA. It is thought this is the first time the Ulster Council has had to ban anyone for racial abuse, although this could be more to do with demographics than enlightened attitudes of those involved. At the last census, only 1% of Northern Ireland* was classed as an ethnic minority, which makes the number of ‘coloured faces’ playing any sport in the area is relatively small.

As the other features this week on Round Eight will also show, any problem with racism isn’t exclusive to the GAA or Ireland. Countless examples exist in football, rugby, cricket, AFL, US sports… it’s a problem for society to deal with too, not just sport.

Unanswered questions

However, not having come across a case of racism before does not excuse the poor handling of this case. Despite strong words when the cameras were rolling at the start of the saga, subsequent actions have left me a string of unanswered questions.

Here’s the three main things that confuse me:

  1. When the media reported the initial bans, the Ulster Council of the GAA knew they had already been reduced on appeal but said nothing. Why?
  2. How come a fan found guilty of racial abuse gets a life ban, but a player, Aidan Branningan, gets 16 weeks?
  3. What new evidence came to light to overturn/reduce the bans? Why hasn’t this been made public

Stony silence

There is probably a good reason why the Ulster Council didn’t correct media reports. Procedures have to be followed, clubs and players need to be informed of decisions before official media statements are made. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the GAA is an amateur organisation where players have work commitments and can’t always attend disciplinary proceedings.

However all sports organisations have good contacts in the media – a friendly journalist who can be relied upon to not reveal their sources. I would suggest that this would have been one of the times to use them. A “well placed source” could have provided a few details that would have allowed the GAA to better manage the story in the media.

I tried to get answers to my questions from Ulster GAA’s Head of Strategy and Public Affairs without much luck. During a debate on Twitter, I was told “there is no further comment” and when pushed on how serious the Ulster Council is taking this: “I can assure you there is nothing we take more seriously”. I subsequently followed up with an email, asking 15 questions about the Cunningham case and disciplinary procedures in general – no answer.

The stony silence continues.

Why were the bans reduced?

Without any details of the disciplinary process being released, it’s difficult to know what happened when the case was referred to the Hearings Committee. I can only assume that the bans were reduced and overturned based on a lack of evidence or a change of evidence. Given Cunningham’s father was quite vocal in the media following the reductions, it’s unlikely he changed his story and referees are the least likely creatures in history to deviate from the version of events in the match report.

All of which makes a lack of evidence the most likely factor, with the GAA’s official statement outlining that Darryl Brannigan’s “infraction was not proven”. In a case like this where no action was taken on the field, we can assume the referee didn’t hear anything first hand, so the original bans must have been made on reports from the players and statement from the ref. It’s tough to argue for long bans when hearsay is the only evidence, but if the original disciplinary panel found enough evidence for two lengthy bans, what changed?

Not explaining the rationale behind the decision stinks of a cover up. Compare the “no comment” reaction of the GAA to The FA’s handling of the Luis Suarez racism case, where The FA released a 115 page judgement, outlining the facts of the case and how they’d arrived at their decision. Make your own decisions on who might be hiding something.

Fans v players

On one level, it’s pretty obvious that the fan given the lifetime ban must have been found guilty of an offence greater than the players, hence his longer ban. However I’m not quite convinced that this stacks up to scrutiny.

Cunningham states he was called a nigger – I’d call that a serious racial insult and I‘d struggle to think of much, if anything, I could be called that would be worse. For a player to be found guilty of using “the n word” to get 16 weeks, what does the fan have to say to get a life ban? I guess he’d have to chase him in a monkey suit, throwing bananas, shouting nigger and then lynch his family. I’m sure that didn’t happen, so what are the other options?

It could be there was more evidence against the fan – shouting from a packed stand tends to leave lots of witnesses, where as direct abuse on the field has not so many. It could be they had a much harsher disciplinary panel. Or could it be that playing for one of the top sides in your County and Province brings with it special benefits? You can imagine the discussions…

“Yes Mr Brannigan, it’s terrible what you’ve done but you bring so much else to the team and have such a good disciplinary record that it’s a shame to ban you.” Compared to “Your only one of thousands of fans who pays to watch us and we can do without your £15 each week. In fact, giving you a stinking ban will make it look like we’ve taken firm action while not affecting us on the field”

Where next?

For the record, I’m not making a judgement on the innocence or guilt of the Brannigans or the Kilcoo fan. I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear it and I don’t know what happened. Although I do think a lifetime ban is excessive and they have been made a handy scapegoat in the name of looking tough.

It would be a great start for the GAA if they opened up about the disciplinary process. The FA’s lead in the Suarez case should be followed, where everyone can see the rationale for the ban and the evidence which lead to it. It’s not just to avoid allegations of foul play – the full verdict would act as a deterrent to all GAA members from future abuse. I think they owe it to their members and fans to explain why a supporter can get a lifetime ban for racial abusing someone but players don’t.

Reminders to players and fans of their obligations, especially to minorities, would also be a step forward. In every club house I’ve been in this year there is a poster about respecting officials and I don’t think it would be too over the top to follow the same pattern. OK, the number of minorities involved may be small at the moment, but recruiting more will be difficult unless the GAA are proactive.

I’m not optimistic that I’ll have any of my questions answered. Despite their well-intended public statements, I think the GAA is hoping to push this under the carpet and wait for it to go away, which it largely has. With so few black players in the game, it’s hardly likely that racism is going to be a huge problem, regardless of how the association handles the problem.

The GAA has done some amazing work, especially over the last 10 years, to try to rid itself of the perceived sectarian problem within the game and is recognised as a leader in this field. However the lack of action, clarity and openness they’ve handled this case with makes me believe they don’t take all forms of equality as seriously.


* Northern Ireland only represents 6 counties of the 9 counties of Ulster, the other three are in the Republic of Ireland. But as censuses are carried out at national level it’s difficult to get figures for Ulster.


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