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Jarlath Burns sets out his goals for GAA Presidency 

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Jarlath Burns. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Jarlath Burns. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

By John Harrington

Jarlath Burns was appointed the 41st President of the GAA on Saturday and sat down with GAA.ie to outline what he hopes to achieve during his three-year term.

GAA.IE: Jarlath, since you were elected Uachtarán Tofa a year ago I presume you've been busy preparing for the role?

JARLATH BURNS: Yes, I have. The year as Uachtarán Tofa is a really good idea because it allows you to reflect. It allows you to meet people. I would rely heavily on Ulster GAA and the personalities there for advice and guidance, particularly around the formation of committees.

We're very lucky in the GAA that we have all of these committees that do so much work and we can rely on expertise when it comes to finance, law, audit and risk, science and medical welfare and all of the things that keep us going. That's really what I've been doing. I've wanted to get my committees in order.

And then in more recent weeks I've been thinking about what I want to say at that moment when I become President of the GAA.

GAA.IE: What priorities have you set out for your three years as GAA President?

JB: Somone, I forget who, once said, "events, my dear boy, events." Obviously you can have the most wonderful strategic brain and have all your plans in place but then something happens in a game or something happens in the GAA or some controversy happens and the President has to respond to that quickly.

I think that can be a real challenge because at that point in time whenever a camera or microphone is thrust you have to show the judgement that is going to give the leadership so that people will be able to look at you and get reassurance that, yes, the President is in charge of this Association and I am now ressured because of what he has said.

What do I want to achieve? I think it's a little bit arrogant almost to think that a President should be able to look back at the end of his three years and say, "as a result of my Presidency this has happened today."

I think there are many challenges in the GAA. There is the challenge of football and hurling and they are two different challenges. In hurling we want to increase participation and in football we want the standard of the spectacle to improve but there are other challenges as well. Ones which may not be as spectacular or as sexy.

The amatuer status is one of our values and what we are spending on preparing our teams is unsustainable. Particularly as we prepare for integration when we'll have other teams to take care of. That has to change and the culture around the preparation of inter-county teams has to change from a number of perspectives. From a financial perspective, from an amateur status perspective, from the cardiovascular load we are putting on players perspective, and from a sustainability perspective as well. Because the amount of miles that are being done, the carbon footprint must be absolutely huge.

I know I've made a decision myself, I drive an electric car and I'm going to drive an electric car as President because I want mine to be a low-carbon presidency as much as possible. So they are some of the challenges that I feel I need to grapple with as President.

GAA.IE: €40m was spent on the preparation of inter-county teams last year. That must be a stressful financial burden for county officers and, as you say, an unsustainable one?

JB: There's stress being a county officer and there's stress being a county team manager. There's no point in blaming the county managers because we place the expectation on them to deliver for our county. And if he doesn't deliver we will be asking questions.

So it's up to the county manager then to try and do whatever has to be done to get his team across the line and usually that involves increasing resources and spending money. And then the county spends its time chasing behind all of that, trying to organise events and situations whereby they can give the support to the county team that is required.

I'm not blaming anybody. It's a culture of high-performance that is brilliant and makes us very professional in the sense of wanting to be the best we can be and it fills our stadiums. But even the Premier League with all of its millions and billions has a financial ceiling. And the GAA and its amateur games does not. That's something I want to change.

The Dublin and Kerry footballers march behind the Artane Band before the 2023 All-Ireland SFC Final. 

The Dublin and Kerry footballers march behind the Artane Band before the 2023 All-Ireland SFC Final. 

GAA.IE: Is it difficult though to put the genie back in the bottle?

JB: It is, but it has to be put back. Everybody will quote the famous Peter Quinn statement that we couldn't even find the table, never mind the under the table payments (to team managers). It's easier to find the table now. The world has changed irrevocably with regard to how we process our financial arrangements. Cash isn't as big a thing as it used to be. But I'm not even talking about that, I'm talking about the number of training sessions that we do, the size of panels, when we start training, all of those things. Some panels have gone up to maybe 45/46 and I just feel that it's unrealistic and unreasonable to think that we as the GAA can sustain that much longer.

GAA.ie: What is your view on the state of hurling?

JB: There are more people playing hurling than ever before. There are more games and competitions and more winners of the Liam MacCarthy Cup in the last 10 years than of the Sam Maguire Cup. There are also more opportunities for counties to compete at a level that's commensurate with their abilities. But it's also a fact that the 'Prairie fire' that Michael Cusack talked about hasn't spread properly to the north of the country and I would like to be a catalyst whereby we would see an explosion of new clubs. Without new clubs we can't have hurling and the likes of a county like Armagh can't have the ambition to win at a higher level than they are. So that's going to be my main priority in hurling. Until we have more clubs competing at a higher level, hurling is never going to reach its full potential. That is something I want to put a major focus on.

The Hurling Development Committee that I have chosen has come from a different demographic. It's come from people who have set up hurling clubs in football areas. People who have maybe set up brand new clubs and they will be in a unique position to identify the challenges and the realistic opportunities that we have. That's not something I'll be able to measure in three years. That's a very long-term project where we create a new culture where football clubs can also play hurling without threatening football and by doing so effectively give a whole new generation of young people a chance to play the game that we all want to play, and I unfortunately never did have that chance myself.

If you look at the people who I have picked for the hurling committee their names are not high profile, but they have the right amount of vision and madness to say, "I can go into a football area to start a hurling club and we'll start from the bottom and keep working our way up until we have a senior team".

We have a lot of underage hurling clubs. There has been great work done in places like Fermanagh and Cavan in developing that and it's just about finding out what works. If you go right back even to the club development plan of 2017, one of them was having a culture of innovation. See what works somewhere and then try it somewhere else and not to be having your arm around your homework.

I think that's what this group is going to do. They're going to come up with a new Hurling Club Toolkit, part of which will be if you are in an area of high population density in a town, this is how you do it. If you are in a rural area with less population, this is how you do it, based on the experience of successful people who have done it elsewhere. And being realistic as well. If a club is struggling to put out a Gaelic football team there's no point rocking up and saying you should be playing hurling.

Monaghan joint captains Niall Garland, left, and Kevin Crawley lift the Lory Meagher cup after their side's victory in the Lory Meagher Cup Final match between Monaghan and Lancashire at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Monaghan joint captains Niall Garland, left, and Kevin Crawley lift the Lory Meagher cup after their side's victory in the Lory Meagher Cup Final match between Monaghan and Lancashire at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

GAA.IE: How easy or difficult will it be to get the support necessary to really grow the game in counties where hurling is a minority sport?

JB: Planning is going to be very important. Every county has to have a strategic plan but we have many counties for whom hurling is a minority sport and who don't have a proper, robust plan for hurling in place. I mean a plan that identifies demographic areas where you could have a hurling club and say we're going to put our coaches in there, we're going to put a lot of resources in there, we're going to make it easy for that club to exist.

Because, at the moment, I could go out into Dublin today and set up a wee soccer club and we could be playing next week. If I want to do the same with a GAA club it's a completely different challenge because of the type of protocols we have and the costs we have of insurance, membership fees, county training funds, and, of course, equipment.

I think we need to make it a lot easier for people who have the dream to realise that dream without the organisation putting red tape and protocols in their way.

It's a very, very long-term project. My sons have all played for the Craobh Rua hurling club which along with Killeavy caters for all of South Armagh. So there are maybe 10 football clubs and two hurling clubs in all of South Armagh. I think that if we are going to do a proper strategic plan you need to go into somewhere like South Armagh and say you're going to create three more clubs here and we're going to work with Ulster GAA on it and we're going to work with the GAA nationally.

I know there are at least two fellas in my own club (Silverbridge Harps) who are coaching football and are from hurling backgrounds down the country and if we flick the switch today and say we're going to start bringing hurling into the club they would jump in straight away.

I think that the biggest thing you can do is when you put a hurling stick into a lad's hand he will want to play it.

David Clifford of Kerry shoots under pressure from Mayo defenders during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Kerry and Mayo at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, Kerry. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

David Clifford of Kerry shoots under pressure from Mayo defenders during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Kerry and Mayo at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, Kerry. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

GAA.ie: Beauty can be in the eye of the beholder and views tend to differ on the state of Gaelic football. What is your own view? Can it be improved?

JB: There are people who will look at a game where all of the play is around the half-forward/half-back line, that lateral passing that many people think is a toxin in a game. But there will be people who will watch that an they'll concentrate on it and they will find that intriguing and absorbing to watch as a team is waiting for its chance to break through that line and the other team is waiting for the chance to turn over the ball and break out.

There are many people watching the game who have actually fallen in love with that form of playing. But that's okay if that type of scenario happens once or twice in a game. There are many people who think it has become the default method of attack and defence. Gaelic football is a very simple game to understand in many respects. If you want to stop a really good team you just flood the defence, get everybody back, which means that a forward can't get the space to shoot. It's very simple.

There are many, many possible solutions to this. Basketball, for example, has never been shy in changing rules when they feel that rules need changing. As has soccer and rugby and other sports. And the GAA too.

I just think we're now in a position, I don't know how long it's been since there's been a proper review of Gaelic football, but I think we're at that stage again where we maybe we take a look at it, we take it all apart, and we put it all back together again to work out what is the sort of game that we want to see played.

I think there are many people who would believe that Gaelic football needs change to become the spectacle that it can become. I think it was Joe McDonagh who said it's a game of tremendous potential but we have never properly realised that potential because we've never fully understood what the best type of Gaelic football match is.

I have identified some key people within the football game to completely look at the rules again. To look at all of the great work that's been done by the Standing Committee on Playing Rules and really establish an new blueprint for the game that makes it a wee bit easier for the forwards to get space and for the really talented forwards to score. That's what we want. We want to see our best players being given a chance to be the best they can be. At the moment the game, I think, is tipped slightly more towards the person who wants to stop that player playing football. And, as a result, we only see glimpses of the likes of the incredible skills that someone like David Clifford has beacuse he's big and strong and can handle himself. But the smaller players, the lighter players, who have the same skills as David Clifford are finding it harder to prosper because of a lack of space.

GAA.ie: The GAA is all about community but our communities are changing due to a population shift from rural to urban areas. How big a challenge does this pose?

JB: When Armagh played Kildare at the weekend I was talking to people from there and they were saying, yes, we've experience a population increase but we're finding it a challenge to get them to play Gaelic because a lot of them are people from Dublin who have come out to live in Kildare and it's the same with Meath and they identify with Dublin. You'll see more Dublin jersies in Ashbourne, for example, than you will Meath jersies.

I think we're asking too much of ourselves if we think that we in the GAA can stem rural depopulation. I'll tell you what we should be doing, though. We should be engaging with Government at a more meaningful level, particularly around the National Development Plan towards 2040 with regard to how that will impact on smaller rural communities.

Again, it's asking ourselves in Ireland the question - "what type of society do we want in the future? Are we moving from a rural to an urban society?" Because, if we are, the GAA's anchor which is community and love of place is going to be in grave danger through no fault of our own.

Even going back to Glenariff up in the Glens of Antrim, there aren't too many opportunties for young people in those glens and they're having to travel to Belfast and other places for work. As a result of that it's impacting on rural life.

It's very difficult for us as an Association to stop that. It's even difficult for the Government to stop it as well as you can see with how they're grappling with the price of housing and all of that how a thing has become slightly skewed. I think that's a challenge for the whole of the country and the GAA should be part of that conversation.

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Jarlath Burns stands as a steward during the 2024 Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final match between Armagh and Derry at BOX-IT Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Jarlath Burns stands as a steward during the 2024 Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup semi-final match between Armagh and Derry at BOX-IT Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

GAA.ie: Does volunteerism also come under threat as society moves on?

JB: You're right, it can, when we're living in the world where everybody has their price and nobody wants to do anything unless they're getting a proper price. The GAA is largely the antidote to that. Beacuse if you look at the 'Take 5' steps to wellbeing before you need to get help for mental issues, one of them is to give back, with the idea being that in giving you receive.

The human being cannot live unless we have a purpose in our lives, and being involved in a club and helping other people does give you that purpose. And it gives you a sense that there are people somewhere who need you and respect you. That's why we shouldn't look at volunteering as something that's a hassle for people as in, "please will you volunteer?"

We should see it as something whereby it can help so many other aspects of your own self-growth and your own mental health. That's why I am so involved in my club. Because I know when I get down to my club it's my third place. First place being home and second place being work. The club is my third place where everybody knows your name, where's there's safety in sameness, and where you feel you can be part of something that's linked to this uinquely Irish love of place.

GAA.ie: As an Association can we be more inclusive? Are there misperceptions out there that we can break down by showing people who we are?

JB: We don't lose anything from what we are by reaching out to other communities. Particularly in the north with the Protestant community. I understand why they would be intimidated by the GAA. The clue is in the first name. We are Gaelic and they are British. And that will always be a challenge for Unionists to be involved in the GAA because of how we are so linked to the idenity of being Irish through our culture, through our flag, through our anthem.

But there are ways in which you can make yourself attractive to other communities. Not by waving flags and saying this is who we are, but just by being welcoming. Extending your hand and saying you're very welcome into our community and we will be very sensitive to you.

A perfect example of that is East Belfast GAA. 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable for the GAA to set up a club in East Belfast but I think that community is now realising that when a GAA club rocks up into your community it brings with it so much social capital and so much sense of people doing things for the community. And a GAA club actually significantly improves a community rather than disimproves it.

GAA.ie: How excited are you about becoming GAA President and setting about the work you want to accomplish in the role?

JB: I'm every excited. I'm taking a leap into the unknown. All my life for the last 34 years I've gotten into my car in the morning and driven to St. Paul's in Bessbrook six miles away. Now coming up to Dublin to work in Croke Park I get the train up and pass St. Paul's just at the time that all the children are coming in in the morning and that's very difficult but I'm very, very excited.

I really don't know what's ahead of me. At 56 that's something new for me but I am really, really excited to be President of the GAA. There are moments when you wake up and it hits you and it reminds me of Pope John XXIII who had been a Cardinal for many years in the vatican and then became Pope against all the odds. He said he used to wake up in the middle of the night with some big problem and think, "I must tell the Pope that" and then he'd realise "I am the Pope!"

I need to stop thinking the GAA needs to do something about something. I am that person who can do something and the challenge for me now is to actually do it.