By Kieran Murphy
On Friday night in Croke Park the long wait will end for the five candidates who have put themselves forward to become the 39th President of the GAA.
Among them will be Clonmore clubman Jim Bolger who is running for the position alongside Jarlath Burns (Armagh), Larry McCarthy (New York), Jerry O’Sullivan (Cork) and Mick Rock (Roscommon).
A native of Hacketstown and living in Killeshin, Jim has experienced all strands of the organisation. He a former senior intercounty player and coach and as an administrator he served as treasurer of the Leinster Council for a year before becoming vice-chairman and then chairman of the Leinster Council, each for three-year terms.
In Carlow he was a key member of the committee that formulated a five-year strategic plan for the development of football in the county.
He describes his seven years as a senior officer in Leinster GAA as an extremely productive experience.
Over the last two months, Carlow’s presidential candidate has travelled nationwide talking to executives in the 32 counties. He has centred his bid for election on three issues: volunteerism, the impact of the inter-county game and the combined area of risk management and governance.
“We, as an association for the last number of years, have been subject to a top-down rather than a bottom-up kind of governance. The volunteer’s voice has become a little bit lost and I would like to ensure the elected volunteers in particular have a strong voice in the association,” says Jim.
“There are pressures on the volunteer now like never before,” he points out. “Child protection, data protection, health and safety, finances, fundraising, all that kind of stuff.”
Under Jim’s watch Leinster introduced a shared services scheme. He takes book-keeping as a typical example where counties and clubs need help.
“Given the amount of money which is generated by counties it is a very important area,” he says.
Through the system, clubs and counties can also get advice on issues such as child protection, data protection, finance and fundraising.
“Under this scheme I would like to see a shared services model broadened, I would like to see us using retired or semi-retired GAA people who have the skillset we require.
“A lot of the time the skill set we require doesn’t happen through the democratic process necessarily and we don’t always get the skills mix at county board or at club level we would like.
“I am trying to take the pressure off the volunteer. County chairmen and county officers are preoccupied with fundraising and finances. Likewise club chairmen and club officers.
“I would like to take the pressure off them so that they could think strategically for either the county or the club and not be fire fighting all the time, which essentially is what they are doing.”
Bolger says counties are spending vast sums of money training county teams for frre them will be left behind. Recently the Director General’s annual report revealed that almost €30m was spent on intercounty teams in 2019.
“That is not sustainable from a financial prospective,” says Jim.
“I have a radical opinion on this. The financial end is one part but more worrying you have a high duty of care to the amateur player.”
The 2018 ESRI report pointed out that the requirements on some intercounty players could be as high as 31 hours per week.
“That is a massive chunk out of anyone’s life to be dedicating to what is essentially a hobby or pastime,” says Jim.
As an example of how this may be having a negative impact, he says some players might actually be underachieving academically because they decide to study a course which requires fewer hours so that they can concentrate on Gaelic games.
“We have players who have given up their work to train and a high-profile manager who gave up his job [Derek McGrath in Waterford] to manage. That is not sustainable.”
He wants experienced heads to come together to discuss this issue.
“We need to get a high-profile committee which understands that space and comes back with recommendations. We have a high duty of care to the player from a well-being perspective.”
The third strand of Jim’s manifesto centres on risk management systems and governance. Given the size of the organisation and the money that is being generated he would, if elected, seek to appoint a facilities manager who would oversee not just the upkeep and development of stadia but would advise county boards and clubs who were developing and extending their own facilities.
“If we were to replace Croke Park in the morning it would cost north of a billion (euros) to replace it. That is the kind of resource we have to maintain and look after on a day-to-day basis.
“And we have training centres and centres of excellence all over the country and further afield that require, on an ongoing basis, money to ensure we maintain them to the standard required.”
He also envisages a central procurement system where clubs and counties could use a system for almost anything they needed.
“A one-stop-shop where people could log onto the website and get, for example, ball stoppers, flood-lights, anything including the minimum standard required. There would be an approved set up of suppliers and contractors.”
He says there would be no obligation on anybody to buy through the system.
“If they can get the same standard cheaper locally or wherever, work away, once the minimum standard is achieved.”
He says if a working risk officer and risk management cell was established it would help to avoid the situation which Cork found themselves in when it came to costing the development of Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
There have been issues surrounding finances and fundraising in Galway and Mayo recently too which could be handled under governance guidelines.
Finally, Jim would hope to tap into the experience of former Presidents. He intends to establish an advisory committee that perhaps would meet twice a year to review procedures and take major decisions.
“You cannot buy that knowledge. That knowledge is priceless and I would add in a couple of other high profile GAA people with the desired skill-set as well who would reflect on the previous six months to see if we are on track or perhaps advise on what way to go for the next six months.”
The dust is settling now for the five candidates ahead of Friday’s vote. Through the achievements of the senior football and hurlers, Carlow Rising has a nationwide audience. Could Jim Bolger extend the phenomenon to the highest echelons of Croke Park?