by Mary-Anne McNulty

Representatives from Naomh Colmcille attended an appeal hearing last night to state their case against a proposed eight week ban, imposed by the Donegal county board as punishment for the Newtowncunningham club holding an 'unauthorised' fundraiser in aid of Paul 'Diddler' Dillon, a former player and coach who has motor neurone disease.

Irrespective of the outcome, the controversy surrounding the Naomh Colmcille situation has done little to endear the GAA to a general public that didn't have such a great word on them as it was.

'GAA fat cats choking off the means for small clubs to raise funds, yet they let U2 play in Croke Park', etc, has been a common refrain on social media message boards the length and breadth of the country this past week.

No surprises there, then.  But what this particular case in Newtown has exposed is that the gulf between the organisation and its own members is widening, and the sense of resentment from the grassroots deepening.

In Naomh Colmcille's case, their feelings of injustice concern the unyielding attitude of their masters in their refusal to take Paul Dillon's unique set of circumstances into account when it came to this fundraiser. If ever something should have been judged on its own merits, it was this. But it seems there's no room for nuance when it comes to the GAA rulebook.

And little room for compassion, either. But while the perceived callousness may be the thing that has incensed the public at large, this was, from a  purely pragmatic point of view, a massive case of GAA chiefs shooting themselves in the foot.

Because if the powers that be in Croke Park think for one minute that this event wasn't beneficial to the GAA, they've got blinkers on.

This was a fundraiser for a much-loved member of the Newtown community, and as Darina Friel (and every other person like her in clubs across Inishowen and beyond) knows only too well, the club is nothing without the community.

Because the obsession to protect the purity of the game prohibits clubs from raising much-needed funds by renting out their facilities to soccer clubs and the like, they are completely dependent on the goodwill of that community for their survival.

Dependent on people who don't all play Gaelic, but who show their support time and again when the ticket sellers come knocking.

And what is the GAA saying to that broader community? "Er, thanks for doing the lotto and buying a ticket for 'Stars in their Eyes", but you're not actually welcome in our club if you fancy a five-a-side, or want to do a bit of training on the astro, or if you want to fundraise for something that's not strictly GAA."

In order to get continued support, you have to give something back in return, so it's small wonder the Naomh Colmcille committee thought 'to hell with it, we'll take our chances', because you can rest assured they would have struggled to raise a dime in Newtowncunningham ever again had they refused to do their bit for one of their own.

Another glaring double standard is the association's stance on insurance in relation to fundraisers etc. The GAA won't cover certain activities within their grounds, and clubs cannot entertain anyone who is not covered by insurance - but are they applying such strict insurance criteria to fundraising activities being carried out on their behalf outside the grounds of the club?

Wee lads going door to door selling lottos, going in to pubs and hotels at weekends selling tickets? Is it fair to expect members to be covered by somebody else's insurance, and in many cases not covered at all?

What we may well see are the rank and file putting the foot down and saying "well, we are not insured to bring in money for you, or take advantage of someone else's insurance."

And I noticed something else, too, while talking to people in GAA circles this week. Not fear, exactly, but apprehension. There's a reluctance to speak candidly on issues they have concerns about, and it's almost as if everyone's waiting on the outcome of this appeal before sticking their neck out.

Say what you like about the Naomh Colmcille committee, and I think it's fair to say they would have handled certain aspects of this differently if they could turn back the clock, but ultimately they have raised their heads above the parapet, and that is how change comes about.

The debates that have raged this week aren't a storm in a teacup. The Newtown affair has brought to the surface a number of issues that have been troubling the GAA's grassroots for some time.

For better or worse, the toothpaste is out of the tube.

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