Uachtarán CLG Jarlath Burns

A Iaruachtaráin , a Ardstiúrthóir agus a Iarardstiúrthóiri, cuairteoirí, oifigigh agus a chomhdháil. Agus mé i mo sheasamh anseo os bhur gcomhair, feicim cairde, comradaí, daoine a bhfuil a saolta caite agus saite i gCLG agus chomh maith leis seo, feicim mo chlann. Ar an chéad dul síos, silim go bhfuil sé de dhualgas orm mo bhuíochas a ghabháil ó chroí libh go léir mar gheall ar an tacaíocht, comhairle agus cuidiú a thug sibh dom ó bhí mé i mo pháiste go dtí an lá inniu.

Tá dlúthcheangail agam leis an bhaile seo agus leis an cheantar seo agus tá sé oiriúnach go mbeadh an chomhdháil anseo in Iúr Cinn Trá agus mé féin ceaptha mar uachtarán mar thart orainn atá na daoine, na clubanna, na scoileanna agus na háiteanna a chuaigh i bhfeidhm orm agus mé ag fás . Ba mhaith liom chomh maith m’fhíor bhuiochas a léiriú leis na céadta daoine a sheol litreacha agus cartaí chugam le dea mhéin, smaointí agus barúlacha iontu agus ar ndóigh, cuid mhaith acu ar lorg ticéidí do chluiche ceannais na hÉireann.

Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed members of the Gaelic Athletic Association, fellow athletes, and supporters of our cherished Gaelic games, it is with immense gratitude and humility that I stand before you today as the newly installed President of the GAA. As we embark on this journey together, I am filled with a profound sense of responsibility and commitment to upholding the rich traditions, values, and spirit that define our beloved organisation.

As I stand here in this town, my local town, many places which have formed me are very close by and close to my heart. One mile away, Coláiste Cholmain, the school where Michael Cusack himself once taught and where the great Dan McCartan taught me. Three miles out the road, St. Paul’s Bessbrook, where I have spent the last 34 years as teacher and principal and to be honest, is a place I will miss profoundly over the next three.

Next door to the school is Craobh Rua hurling club which put a hurling stick into the hands of my sons and offered them the chance to play this magnificent game; an opportunity I never got myself and of course 10 miles away – Silverbridge, the place more than most which formed me, moulded me and created the person I have become.

If you want to know me, you need to walk around that club and spend time with its people, many of whom are here today and have followed and supported me throughout my life in the GAA, as a club player, as a countyman, as chair of the club and now as president of the GAA. I am as proud of you as you are of me. Over the time of my presidency, I intend to remain as club secretary, a position which I cherish, and which keeps me grounded in the day-to-day life of a rural club. As a democratic organisation, I know you will decide that. I only hope you continue to vote for me at the AGM.

I would also like to pay tribute to this hotel and to its owners, John and Paddy McParland. As good GAA men as you will ever find. They had the courage to build this hotel in this town at a time when Newry was seen by many as a wasteland with no jobs, no industry and no hope. Newry is now a thriving city in which we can all be proud; is it in Armagh, or is it in Down? To be honest, it doesn’t matter. It’s a super hotel in a great town and it is a dream come true for its owners that we are here this weekend. And the Armagh GAA stewards did a fine job also. The Canal Court is a lot warmer than the Athletic Grounds in January.

Ard Mhacha has been a significant part of my life since I was a boy. Supporting that great All-Ireland team of 1977 and then getting to wear that same orange jersey for 13 years was the fulfilment of all my sporting ambitions, culminating with winning the Ulster title as captain in 1999. It is a strange irony that on the day of the All-Ireland football final later this year, 25 years on from winning the Ulster title, I will host the Meath jubilee team that beat us in the semi-final that year and went on to win the All-Ireland themselves. Had we won that All-Ireland, I would have been in the position on the Croke Park field presenting myself to myself. But in being an Armagh man, in the role of Uachtarán, I follow in the footsteps of the great Alf Murray and want to thank my county and its delegates here today, led by my good friend Paul McArdle, for nominating me, supporting me and mentoring me throughout my life, wearing the orange jersey and latterly being part of the county executive. Ard Mhacha – go raibh maith agaibh go léir.

As I look down, I see my family among you and I want to thank all my children and grandchild and in particular my incredible wife Suzanne – a proud west Belfast woman, for her support and forbearance throughout the 35 years of our marriage; and we all know that behind every successful man is a proud wife, and a surprised mother-in-law.

And my own family are also here today, along with my mother, Helen, who I have most to thank for getting me through my childhood and into adulthood in one piece and who booked into this hotel on Wednesday, but not my father, who sadly passed away two years ago and who I miss greatly, because it was he who piled us all into his old banger of a car to take us around the country to matches for club and county and who first introduced us to Silverbridge GAA.

My family have enjoyed the good days and also the not so good ones, on the field and off it, and because they remember me as a youngster – I know they are secretly scratching their heads wondering how the hell did our Jarlath get to be President of the GAA.

I am mindful that there will always be a particular perspective on and expectation of a GAA President who comes from the Six Counties. As President, I will work with Ulster GAA in approaching issues such as Casement Park, engaging in the very sensitive areas of political discourse and reaching out to other communities. Comhairle Uladh, as led by Brian McAvoy and Ciarán McLoughlin, has been outstanding in steering us through a complex path by keeping the GAA uncontroversial while focusing sharply on our core mission – games provision, enhancing community identity and promoting Irish culture.

The GAA’s position on the constitutional issue, as laid out in Treoir Oifigiúil, is no secret and we remain wedded to that aspiration via purely peaceful means. Our games have always been organised on an all-island basis, before they went truly global, and this approach provided succour and assurance to our people in the North when Croke Park seemed metaphorically a very long way away during some very dark days. The island is changing, and the GAA will have a role to play in that change when the time comes.

I welcome the comments in his speech by the Iar-Uachtarán, Larry, and add my full and unequivocal support to the Brown and Kelly families whose search for justice is reasonable but has experienced unacceptable barriers which are simply intolerable. I acknowledge the support given to the families by Martin Sludden and John Keenan, the chairs of Tyrone and Derry GAA and as President of the GAA, I will walk every step of the way with these families in their quest for truth and justice.

We know that our Association faces challenges every day, change sometimes arrives at our door and for which we are unprepared and in other times, we anticipate change and create strategic plans to address what we think will happen in the future. In some respects, the current talks being led by Mary McAleese between the three Gaelic associations are a mixture of the two. Our clubs are largely ahead of us and a considerable number have been operating the one club model for many years.

My own club has been transformed since females began playing a proper role in leadership and on the field, though I acknowledge the anticipation of full integration is matched by understandable apprehension in some quarters at how this will look at the level of inter-county activity. I promise we will move decisively, but sensibly towards this goal and I welcome today the group of girls from my school who told me they were coming here to ensure I mentioned them in my speech and who will hold me to driving this project to completion.

I know many of you will see me as a President from the Gaelic football tradition at a time when perhaps a hurling man is needed. And I understand that. But you would be wrong. I see myself as neither a football or hurling man, but a GAA man. I hail from south Armagh – hardly a hurling stronghold and it is not through any fault of my own though a matter of considerable regret, that I never got the chance to play this amazing game. I did ensure however, that my sons would not have this to say and all of them have competed at various levels in school, club and county, with two of them winning county and Ulster club medals and Fionnan gaining an Ulster hurling club All-Star in 2021. I say this, not to present myself as any sort of hero against the odds, but to prove that although hurling may not be in my blood, it is in my heart, and I simply love the game.

And it is inaccurate to say that hurling has considerable challenges at the moment. At the highest level, it is as beautiful, elegant and artistic as it ever was with ironically more All-Ireland winners in the past 10 years than football, and the aims of the HDC of 2015 have all been met – namely to offer more chances to play hurling, facilitating coach education and the development of a culture of innovation and the sharing of good practice.

However, without more hurling clubs competing within their counties, we will never have more counties competing at the highest level and this is going to be a main focus area during my presidency. The work which has been carried out by the recently formed Hurling Review Group has been excellent and I commend them for that. I aim to build on this by working hard with communities to develop hurling capacity where the demographics are healthy and there is a will to do it. This is a very long-term project and will take many years to produce any meaningful change, but we need to stick with it and believe we can achieve it.

Phase 1 will be spent creating a toolkit for the development of new clubs, stand-alone clubs, the creation of dual clubs within football clubs and underage clubs where there is strong demographics. We will then work with counties and provincial councils to identify areas that are ripe for development in hurling and camogie with a particular focus on schools. I will call this initiative Tiomáint and it will be driven from the coaching and games section along with the inspirational figures on this committee, many of whom have been selected for having successfully created hurling in their own clubs.

And now to football. In the past year, I have received hundreds of letters, some offering me congratulations, others offering me advice, many getting an early say in for tickets though I would say a good 80 per cent have focused on Gaelic football, what is wrong with it, and how it can be fixed. I am not going to go into the minutiae of what is wrong, or how we can solve it here. But I will say the following. 2025 will be a rule change Congress. We have asked for your proposals to come in from county conventions in 2023. This was a good idea.

I have established a Football Review Group to completely take every aspect of the game apart and put it all together again with a view to making Gaelic football a more enjoyable spectacle to watch and play. As a former chair of the Standing Committee on Playing Rules, I can say I do not envy their task, because if I took 20 of you into a room and asked you your opinions, there would be 20 different perspectives on even what the problem is, never mind the solution. However, the sight of endless passing across the half forward line, without any risks being taken, before the ball is channelled back to a midfielder who repeats the process from the other side of the pitch, is not what Gaelic football should be. I think we can all agree on that.

I know you would expect an ex-county player to have a major focus on games and you are right. But an ex-county player should also be focused on the county game and its current financial cost to counties. Over the past three years, I have sat in every GAA county committee room in Ireland on two occasions. In 2019, I did a lot of talking and in 2023, I did a lot of listening. And the message from all counties was the same. The senior inter-county game is becoming a financial noose around the necks of county boards as they seek new and innovative ways of giving their teams that little edge over their rivals. And at the end of the year, there can still only be a very small number of captains holding the cups, regardless of how much money has been spent on preparing county teams.

My own county chair, Paul McArdle, did his first three-year stint as chair six years ago and the second, two-year stint starting last year, and he told me he simply could not believe how much the entire landscape of county team preparation had changed in that short time. Last year, we were astounded and delighted by the generosity of JP McManus with his €32m for clubs, but remarkably, we spend considerably more every year in the amount of money we invest in our county teams. And we all know we’ll have far more to show for JP’s money with a far wider legacy and a deeper level of appreciation because his money is going straight to the grass roots who will spend this money wisely.

Our county team expenditure is divided between bus companies, hotels and travel expenses, with the back-room teams also a major cost. And where does this €40m come from? It comes from us. You people in front of me; busting your gut to get sponsors, begging people who have money to spare, raffling houses, cars, holidays, running golf classics, nights at the races, nights at the dogs, strictly come dancings, gala dinners, auctions and even trying to get rock concerts into our grounds. Every year it’s a struggle as we, the volunteers, begin the task of gathering up enough cash to keep the county bandwagon on the road, the vast majority of us knowing exactly how it will end up. And of course, it is the players who suffer. More training, greater expectation, less time with family and of course, the wrath of the social media warriors if they put a foot wrong.

It is wrong to apportion blame for this because we are all at fault and at the same time, we are all victims of the natural desire to be better, faster and stronger. When we hand our team to the new manager, we do so in the full expectation that he is going to deliver – promotion, or a provincial title, or even an All-Ireland, and when it goes wrong, they get the blame. Of course, in the environment where our managers operate, they will want to create a high-performance culture that will get the best out of their available players. And the GPA are the representatives of the players. They will argue that if managers are going to ask players to train six times a week, they will rightly demand the players get expenses to pay for their travel plus whatever bit of gear comes along with that.

Along with the sense of helplessness felt by county chairs and treasurers, is the feeling that we have gone too far and can’t go back. And we all know we have to. Because all of this falls under the single most important value we have. The Amateur Status. Our players are no longer amateurs. Of course, like us, they don’t get paid for their efforts, but that’s where it ends. We have never properly stipulated what an amateur status looks like in the modern world. The last person to examine it was Peter Quinn back in 1996. I have established a new amateur status committee which will look at all aspects of county expenditure and I expect them to propose significant changes to budgets for county team expenditure. The problem is ours. So has the solution to be. We owe it to the counties with lower demographics who are really struggling to make ends meet. And I promise, I will do my utmost to stop the runaway train that is the preparation of county teams.

Agus an ball is mó ar deireadh – as I look down in the crowd before me, I see the grassroots of the GAA. I see legends of the game – outstanding administrators, people who will rush away from here to watch their counties compete and maybe open the gates of the club tomorrow for the under 10s to play and then clean out the dressing room when it’s over. The GAA is the place where we all belong. We are owned by everyone and by no one. We do not have shareholders, whose dividend is an annual cash bonus, but stakeholders whose only dividend is to see their county win, their club prosper and their children to be involved in the GAA. In this I include the Iar-Uachtaráin, all of whom I hold in the highest esteem and on whose advice I will rely heavily in the three years to come.

I want to pay a particular tribute to Tom Ryan, our Ard Stiúrthóir, and his staff, who have been such a great help to me, and I know will remain to be. And Labhrás MacCartaigh, who has handed me this presidential medal today in Newry. Larry, you and John Horan had to navigate us through one of the most challenging eras in our history and we owe you both so much for how you did it. All around the country I have spoken to ordinary GAA people who appreciated random acts of decency that Larry did quietly for them in his role as Uachtarán and which will never be known.

From the stewards in Croke Park, to the family of Seán Brown, to the many GAA families, including my own, who were honoured by your presence at the funeral of their loved one, to the clubs who were overwhelmed by your unexpected, unannounced presence at their junior B game. I wish you and Barbara well. You will always be the first Uachtarán from New York and seeing your team win a first round of the championship and then the junior title, will be your own highlights, surely. I will see you at a match.

And before I finish – my GAA life has been opunctuated by two incredible men from the Scotstown cub. First, the late, great Seán McCague, who plunged me headlong into the GAA political world back in 2000 as the first Chair of the GAA Players’ Committee. And latterly, Páraic Duffy, my close friend, mentor, adviser, and wise counsel. I would not be here without either of you, and I will never forget you.

And now as we go back to our counties, I ask for your support for me. I will need it. My plans are ambitious, they’re not fancy, or grandiose. But they are value-led and based on what you have told me what we need to do. Our amateur status, our UNESCO game of hurling, the dream of unifying our Gaelic games Associations, being realistic about our infrastructure agenda and of course, the small matter of Gaelic football and its current standing.

All of these could be controversial, or radical or even transformational. We don’t know. But each and every one of us has the chance today to contribute and to write the next chapter of the history of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. It will take us all – working together – to put us back in control of this great organisation so we can make it reach its full potential as the greatest sporting and cultural association in the world.

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