JUST three weeks into his term as GAA President, John Horan visited Dunmanway to officially launch the Sam Maguire Festival.
The Dubliner braved the weather and road conditions to travel and was greatly impressed by the voluntary effort of the Dunmanway community to honour the memory of its native son.
Tom Lyons took the opportunity to talk to the new man about his next three years as leader of the GAA.
Tom Lyons: Could you outline your pathway to the presidency?
John Horan: Na Fianna is my club in Glasnevin in Dublin and I played football with them before going into coaching. Through the coaching I got into administration at second-level schools. From that, I went into coaching and games chairman in Leinster for six years and then I was vice-chairman and chairman of the Leinster Council.
Obviously, a successful election last year saw me here now as uachtarán.
TL: Why did you decide to contest the election for presidency?
JH: It wasn’t a decision I necessarily made by myself. Encouragement from other people had a lot to do with it. When the counties in Leinster saw I was doing a good job as chairman, they were happy for me to go for the job.
Liam O’Neill was the last Leinster uachtarán but the last from Dublin was Daniel McCarthy, 97 years ago. He started in 1921 and finished in 1924 so I suppose I’m bridging a big gap.
TL: Do you believe there is a real role for the uachtarán in the GAA?
JH: There are two roles really. The first is the ambassadorial role which I’m serving here today coming down here to recognise the work that’s going on here in Dunmanway, the effort the local community is making to honour the life and times of Sam Maguire. Hopefully, they’ll eventually have a heritage centre to honour his name.
The other aspect is to represent the volunteers in the GAA. When I was canvassing for uachtarán, I travelled all over the country and took on board what people were saying to me. Hopefully, I can put some of that into effect. I wouldn’t say I’d solve all the problems in the GAA because the GAA is a very complex organisation and in only three weeks as uachtarán I’ve discovered how much more complex it’s become. I have three years now to get something done.
TL: What do you see as the strong points of the GAA?
JH: In an overall context, the GAA is very strong. When you look at the amount of people playing our games and the amount of people watching and supporting our games, then you have to say we’re in a healthy position.
As I said at Congress, it’s more about evolution rather than revolution right now in the association. The GAA doesn’t need revolution. Look at the numbers attending our summer camps, the numbers attending games, we’re in a very strong, healthy position in Irish society.
TL: On the reverse side of the coin, what would you identify as the weaknesses in the GAA?
JH: Life is definitely becoming very difficult for many clubs right now.
When you look at the changes in legislation, with all the child protection and vetting that has to be done, the new data protection codes, this makes it very difficult to run a club.
In the old days, you got a set of jerseys, rang a few fellas and went off and played your game, those days are gone now. Of course, protocols are important but we need to streamline some of those to make it easier for volunteers in the clubs.
TL: What are your own personal priorities as uachtarán for the next three years?
JH: The whole issue of elite squads, development squads, disturbs me.
Detaching players from their clubs is not something we should be encouraging. We have to make sure elitism does not develop within our association. I have asked Michael Dempsey to chair a committee to review the whole player path from U13-U20 and see what solutions we can come up with.
I also want to get the message to provincial and county boards that the amateur ethos is paramount and it’s up to them to preserve it properly. I can encourage it but I can’t make rules because they would be circumvented.
I firmly believe our amateur status is critical to us as an organisation. You’re not going to solve the problem of paying coaches with rules only. Should clubs be raising funds to hand over to individuals, some of whom are journeymen working on a very short-term basis? They make use of players to make themselves look good, instant success, whereas some of our own could often do a better job.
At club and county levels, many of the successful teams are coached by people who are not getting paid. Also, when we review the football and hurling championships in three years’ time I would like to see us buying into a two-tier championship in football.
We need a two-tier championship. I’m not sure if it’s a packaging problem, but when you look at hurling, there are four or five different tiers and ladies’ football and camogie have successful tiers. Gaelic football is the odd one out. I think we need to get a good package together and to get counties to buy into it. If we can achieve that, it will be a very successful day’s work.
TL: What are your views on the club v county problem that is so prominent in the GAA?
JH: There is a gap between club and county and the bringing forward of the All-Ireland finals is an effort to alleviate that problem.
I don’t think we have the answers yet and we need to do a lot more on it. As long as we keep it as a focus, keep working on it, we will get there and close the gap.
TL: What about the chaotic fixtures programmes that exist at all levels of the association at present?
JH: Well, the recent weather certainly hasn’t helped but this is the first year of the new experiments with April for the clubs, a Super 8 in football and league championships in hurling. I hope the National Planning Committee will monitor it carefully and try to put it all together in the different counties.
Hopefully, there will be a forum at the end of the year with the fixtures’ committees from the various counties to see what is working well and maybe learn from each other, rather than everybody trying to invent the wheel themselves. We’re a democratic association and we’ve a lot of people and a lot of ideas but at the end of the day you’ve got to get some group to put a plan together and drive it forward.
TL: How advanced are the plans to unify the GAA, ladies’ football and camogie associations?
JH: There’s a draft memorandum of understanding in place now between the three organisations. I come from a club myself that has a one-club structure and I know it will take time on a national front.
It’s not going to happen overnight. Issues need to be smoothed out but eventually it’s about going forward in a way that everybody buys into.
TL: If you were granted three wishes for your term in office, what would they be?
JH: The first would be to resolve the elitism issue in our development squads, second would be to improve the message of our amateur status. It’s something we value and must work on.
Third would be to improve the workload on the volunteers in the clubs.