Should I Play I Or Should I Go?

When the balloon went up between the Cork County Board and the county senior footballers and hurlers, the favoured refrain of Corkonians – particularly those supporting the position of the players – was that you could expect no more from the Rebels. James Dean! Birthplace of Michael Collins! Deathplace of Michael Collins! Last place to hold out in the Civil War, the People’s Republic of Cork, yeah!

History has a habit of reallocating the credit (and the blame) for significant events and achievements – how the hell did a cartographer manage to secure the name of an entire continent and the most powerful nation on the planet for himself? And so it is with the Rebel County, with Cork folk blithely assuming they are so named because of their bellicose attitude during the Troubles of the early 1920’s. The truth is much less edifying for the average Cork Gael, and a lot more amusing for the rest of us. They were called ‘the Rebels’ because they supported the claim of one of the inbred aristos attempting to usurp the English throne over the claim of the incumbent inbred aristo who had already successfully usurped the English throne. How very republican.

(Then again, people in Waterford seem to think Urbs Intacta Manet is a reference to resistance to Cromwell. They are, of course, wrong, but I’m not going to spoonfeed you, that’s what Google is for.)

So what to make of the latest spat down in Royalist County? It’s impossible to construct a coherent chronology of what has happened up to this because neither side is willing to be honest as to their motivations. It’s hard to take the County Board’s insistence that, when they removed from the manager the power to choose his own selectors, they were motivated by a desire to see control of fixtures repatriated back to the clubs. While I’ve no doubt that clubs are irritated by the manager of the senior inter-county team sticking his oar in to force the postponement of club matches, other counties are nowhere near such a peasant’s revolt over the same issue – supposedly only the Waterford footballers have the same system as what is now (back) in existence in Cork. The County Board had two goals. They wanted to rid themselves of the nuisance that is Billy Morgan, a character who is near-universally accepted as being able to do no wrong – often, it should be noted after Cork’s miserable effort in last year’s All-Ireland final, contrary to the evidence – but who also seems to be a rallying point for discontent with the way the County Board is run. The second goal was to send a shot across the bows of that small rump of malcontents known as the GPA, a shot that said that the County Board ran the show in Cork GAA, and would use any means at its disposal to ensure it remained that way.

As for the players, good luck trying to extract any consistency from their spinmeisters during this debacle. The core issue is supposedly the managers right to pick his selectors, so what the hurlers, whose managers still possesses that right, are doing coming out in support of the footballers begs the question. I’m sure they are claiming solidarity, but how about some solidarity with the rest of the hurling fraternity? Dublin, supposedly the latest fragile flower that needs nurturing, can look forward to precisely one (1) home match in the NHL this year, and that against Antrim – a match already played. Meanwhile the footballers seem, to put it charitably, to be confused as to what they want. They definitely don’t want to chose the manager, merely to have a veto over his appointment – which surely amounts to the same thing. They want to have the manager to have the power to chose his selectors, yet now they seem to be willing to row back on this in return for the head of Teddy Holland, making you wonder what, if securing the dismissal of a man who took the job after they went on strike (for the want of a better word), they were looking for in the first place. The GPA deny having anything to do with the matter, but when you see the leading lights in the GPA leading the charge, no one would blame you for snorting with derision at such protestations. The players complain about a democratic deficit in the County Board, yet seem to think that their opinions are a useful proxy for what that democratic will is, then don’t canvass their meagre membership when their representatives reject the proposals of a neutral arbiter. And it is unclear whether the status of Frank Murphy is an issue, with some saying it is and others saying it isn’t.

Which brings us to what, when the mendacity of both sides is stripped away, is the alpha and the omega of the matter. Frank Murphy’s Byzantine machinations are the stuff of legend. My own personal favourite was when the first vote on the opening of Croke Park was defeated by a razor-thin margin back in 2001. Frank’s swift intervention prevented a recount on what had only been a show of hands, accompanied by suggestions that some delegates had been in the loo when the vote was taken. It is this kind of smoke-filled rooms nonsense, bolstered by myriad stores, both verified and anecdotal, that understandably antagonises people, casts doubt on the legitimacy of any claim that the vote was the settled will of the GAA membership in Cork, and underpins every bit of support for the players. Anyone from outside Cork should instinctively side with the players against the oddly-follicled Machiavelli.

It is probably the firmest evidence of the folly of the players that this particular outsider finds himself siding with Frank Murphy and his cronies. There has been much talk online from those supporting the players about how a stand had to be taken against the tyrant, that the players were speaking for the silent majority of Cork GAA who were unwilling to face down the cabal that are running the association in the county. This may well be true, but that doesn’t negate the necessity for attempting to affect change through the proper channels. If Donal Óg Cusack is unhappy that Cloyne’s delegates are voting against his wishes and that of the wider membership, then by all means engage in a spot of grandstanding, march up to the next meeting of the club’s executive with all of RTÉ’s cameras behind him and insist on having his say on the matter. No danger of a person of his stature being fobbed off and the supposedly cowed majority would surely row in behind him.

I won’t entertain the notion that Donal Óg and his peers have antagonised the grassroots with the endeavours with the GPA. No, I won’t . . .

But having invoked the strike option twice in the last five years with success, it seems the players thought they could strike whenever they like and the mandarins would capitulate. However, if the Cork County Board staged the whole affair to slap the players down, then surely the players should have anticipated that the County Board wasn’t going to be for turning on this matter? Evidence that the players overplayed their hand can be seen in the suggestions from their online supporters that all that is needed at this stage is for Teddy Holland to walk the plank and they will return to, er, work. On one level, this strikes me as being a reasonable compromise. Holland’s position is irretrievably compromised. Whether you think the players are justified or not in their bleating about the breach of trust wrought by him taking the job after they asked that no one accept it, it’s going to impossible for the players to unsay what they said. If the County Board had the cojones to tell the players that they’re under no obligation to play for Teddy Holland (which they’re not), thank them for their outstanding service to Cork GAA in the past, and that they were going to move on to those who were willing to play under Teddy Holland, no matter how fat and useless, then the players bluff will have been called.

The County Board want the senior (read: good) players on board though. Frank Murphy is not going to send out a Rebel team to be murdered in the manner that, uh, every other county bar Kilkenny experience occasionally, and they avoid only avoid such unpleasantness by not fielding a football team at all. But if the players go back having secured an objective (i.e. the removal of Teddy Holland) that became an issue after they had initially gone on strike, therefore not coming near achieving what they had gone on strike for, you’ve got to ask what it was all about (I may have mentioned that already; it’s an important point).

Wheels within wheels. At the time of writing, both sides have agreed on accepting the recommendations of a neutral party, probably Kieran Mulvey of the Labour Relations Commission, a man who has probably encountered the harrowing choices facing workers about how many of them must be sacrificed for the greater good on countless occasions – with that in mind, this clash must drive him mad in its pettiness. Hopefully this will lead to a resolution, even if it’s too late to save Cork’s participation in the National Leagues. In the short run, this should lead to a win for the County Board. Already there are whispers that the Board will engineer a legal loophole to get them off the hook of the initial resolutions and / or the appointment of Teddy Holland, allowing them to brazenly claim that everything they have done has been within the rules, while any compromises on the part of the players will involve them having to swallow their pride and admit they hadn’t got everything they wanted, in spite of all the apocalyptic rhetoric that here they must stand, they can do no other.

The long run is murkier. The County Board may have unleashed forces that have long been dormant in the GAA. The individual member has the power, a power that has either been stymied by political chicanery at higher levels (“the motion was submitted on paper clearly manufactured in France, therefore it is ruled out of order”) or left in the hands of the active minority on the executives of individual clubs who, not unreasonably given the levels of apathy, make decisions without consultation with the membership. After this furore, anyone who says they are angry at the passing of a particular motion will be told in no uncertain terms that they should have kicked up a stink rather than blithely assuming that the delegates would be psychic. Just about everyone thinks what they believe coincides with what the silent majority, or the famed GAA ‘grassroots’, thinks. They can’t all be right and many would get a well-deserved rude awakening should a definitive poll of the ‘settled will’ of the GAA be established on certain matters. I think the majority of the membership of Cork GAA would side with the players over the County Board. Sean Óg Ó hAilpín or Frank Murphy? John Fitzgerald Kennedy or Richard Nixon? It is to be hoped that the mooted resolution will provide the space for a robust discussion of the issues rather than surreptitious motions and kneejerk strikes. And who knows? Maybe the players don’t have the silent majority behind them. Maybe the foot soldiers of Cork GAA think they are a shower of GPA prima donnas who need to be put in their place, much as the County Board wants. Now that would be an expression of the democratic will that would be worth waiting for.