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Joe Kernan: Show red card to violence against refs

It has been suggested more than once in recent times - tongue in cheek, of course - that referees are becoming an endangered species.

Now this somewhat flippant comment suddenly carries much more chilling implications given the tribulations to which a number of whistlers have been subjected this year.

And with two of the most violent incidents having occurred in Ulster the ramifications, not just for refereeing but for the GAA as a whole, are extremely serious.

Simon Brady was left concussed following an assault when spectators entered the playing arena at the end of the Tyrone ladies game between Augher and Carrickmore in the early summer and now Ray Matthews has called time on his career as one of the leading whistlers in Antrim.

The decision by Matthews, coming in the wake of the Ulster Council Hearings Committee verdict to reduce the sanctions imposed on St Mary’s Rasharkin by the Antrim Competitions Control Committee, has sent shock waves through the province.

The St Mary’s club had initially been banned from participating in any competitions above Minor level next year but this decision was rescinded although the adult teams will now have to play their matches away from home in 2012.

Matthews, who is still under medical care following the injuries he sustained in a post-match assault at the St Mary’s v Lamh Dhearg U21 championship game, has made no bones about the fact that he feels the Ulster Council has spurned an opportunity to come down hard on violence.

And this is a view shared by many today — and particularly by all those county secretaries in Ulster who at this point in time have, to a man, been outlining their fears for the future of refereeing in the province.

At every county convention in Ulster this month fears for the well-being of referees were articulated — ironically, Antrim secretary Frankie Quinn had perhaps the most pertinent and forcible comments to make on this subject.

It is no coincidence that in every county concerns for the well-being of referees have escalated to such an extent that measures are now being adopted to deal with what has become a major problem within the Association.

In Antrim, it is planned to select six facilitators who, it is hoped, will visit all clubs to hammer home the message of respect for referees, while in Tyrone clubs have been warned that any future violence could result in a shortage of whistlers.

And this indeed is now the real kernel of the problem.

GAA administrators believe that younger people who might otherwise have expressed an interest in taking up the whistle could be dissuaded from becoming referees, particularly in the wake of the real fear experienced and vividly outlined by Ray Matthews.

A former county hurler, Matthews is no stranger to the cut and thrust of action on the park but violence perpetrated by so-called fans has “sickened and disgusted” him.

His poser — “Why should I put my life in danger?” — requires to be urgently taken on board by all those charged with overseeing staging of fixtures.

While it is accepted that referees are not quite as exposed at inter-county level — mind you, the jostling to which Tyrone whistler Martin Sludden was subjected at Croke Park at the end of last year’s Leinster final between Meath and Louth caused a major controversy — it’s at club level that the men in the middle are most vulnerable.

In this sector referees are more accessible to irate fans and this has had grim repercussions.

The cancer of violence towards referees is virulent, especially in Ulster.

We have become conditioned to seeing officials move smartly at the end of games to escort referees safely off the pitch.

This is done voluntarily — but such a procedure could become mandatory.

And that’s just for starters in what may become an entirely new process to ensure the health and safety of a group of people without whom matches would not be possible.

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