Resolution of integration puzzle likely to define Jarlath Burns’ time in office

Amalgamation with the Camogie Association and the Ladies Gaelic Footballers Association by 2027 set to top the 41st GAA president’s agenda

Jarlath Burns was in the room for the announcement of the integration pathway on Tuesday, if not quite in the picture.

Larry McCarthy remains the ambassadorial face of the GAA for a few days yet, and presidential etiquette determines the Uachtarán Tofa maintains a respectful non-meddling, shadowing brief until they occupy the kingmaker’s chair.

So, Burns was not sitting at the top table when the steering group on integration (SGI) announced a pathway to amalgamation. Nor was Burns down on pitchside for the official photo shoot either, and yet the day’s events are set to frame his presidency.

The Armagh man will on Saturday afternoon become the 41st president of the GAA, the first Orchard County native since Alf Murray (1964-67). He will also be the first president from the Six Counties since Peter Quinn (1991-1994).


There are plenty of challenges awaiting him and plenty he will want to get done. There is a perception Burns is no company man, that he will shake several trees in the dense forest of the GAA boardroom.

But Tuesday’s announcement by the SGI of their ambition for integration of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Camogie Association and Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association to take place in 2027 has, whether he wanted it to or not, placed a very obvious roadmap for his presidency to travel.

Burns becomes president four days after the 2027 integration aspiration was announced and his three-year term will end in the spring of that very year.

They might as well have reconstructed the much-maligned Liffey Millennium Clock and repurposed it for the countdown to integration. Just stick it on Hill 16 and watch the Time in the Slime become the Cuckoo in Croker. Tick, tock.

Because the progress on this historic amalgamation, or lack thereof, will occur during the presidency of Burns – much of the work needed to facilitate the merger will take place on his watch. Thus, fairly or unfairly, his reign will be viewed by some through the prism of whether he got it over the line.

It is hard to imagine the process not being significantly more advanced three years from now, but it will take some skilful negotiating and planning to have all parties huddled under the one umbrella by early 2027.

The reality is that when he vacates the presidency in three years, if by that stage the pathway to integration is short in distance and low on roadblocks, then Burns will have done a fine job.

The aim is not for all Gaels to wake up on New Year’s Day 2027 and find themselves sharing the same bed.

“Not necessarily January 1st,” said McCarthy on Tuesday about when integration will be a reality. “But some time in 2027.”

This remains one of the greatest logistical challenges the GAA has ever faced. It will be a culturally historic moment, transcending sport and reflecting the mood of a society striving for equality. There is a spotlight now on how it all plays out. It’s big. This is important stuff.

But it is not the only important stuff Burns will seek to address during his presidency. As a player and an administrator, he has shown himself to be a doer and he will look to bring that energy now to the office of GAA president.

One live issue thundering down the track is the runaway train of spending in relation to intercounty teams. During his two campaigns to become president, Burns spoke out against the oceans of money involved with preparing intercounty teams, calling it a ‘juggernaut, and one that we’re just about in control of’.

With costs of intercounty teams last year hitting €40 million, those in the corridors of power all agree it is unsustainable, but nobody has yet figured out how to slow down the locomotive. Burns is expected to take a shot at finding the brakes, at least.

He has also taken issue with the GPA on several player welfare matters over the years and has suggested a more stringent capping on intercounty training.

Above anything else, the retention and promotion of the GAA’s amateur status looks like being a cornerstone of his presidency. Will that see him tackle the underground economy of payments to club managers?

He will also have to examine the population drift and its impact on clubs across the country – rural units struggling for players and urban ones struggling for facilities.

Burns intends to prioritise the development and promotion of hurling in areas where the game struggles to gain a foothold. He was chair of the standing committee on playing rules that introduced the mark and is expected to convene a new committee to examine the current state of Gaelic football.

Refereeing matters will be to the fore as well – recruitment, retention and ensuring a culture of respect for officials pertains.

It will also be interesting to see if he makes any fuss on transparency. The growth in county boards holding meetings in-camera, behind closed doors, is not a good look for the association.

Where We All Belong is a favoured GAA tag line, but when it comes to county committee meetings, apparently not.

Still, uniting the Gaelic games family has now jumped to the top of the queue. Burns will be part of the brains trust tasked with finding a workable solution to the conundrum of the three Fs – finance, fixtures, facilities.

He has already said he has no interest in legacy, but this issue is too big not to enter that realm.

Like it or lump it, the integration puzzle has landed on the table of the GAA’s 41st president, and it has arrived with a target date for completion. The start button on the countdown clock was pressed on Tuesday, before Burns even had his feet under the table. A blessing or a curse? Only time will tell.

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Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times