Two Northern Ireland sporting legends have slammed the GAA’s Ulster Council for reducing the penalties served on the Kilcoo club following allegations of racial abuse during the provincial cup final in Armagh.
All-Ireland winner Oisin McConville said the decision has “sent out the wrong message”, while Joey Cunningham, father of the targeted Crossmaglen player Aaron, said the GAB had “failed miserably”.
Kilcoo's Aidan Branagan had a six-month ban reduced to four months on appeal to the Ulster Council.
His brother Daryl has had his term of suspension quashed.
The suspensions were imposed after the pair had been deemed guilty of subjecting Aaron Cunningham to racial abuse in the provincial decider which was won by Armagh champions Crossmaglen at the Athletic Grounds last month.
“Racial abuse has crept into gaelic football lately,” said ex-Armagh star McConville.
“Ireland is a pluralist society now, but it seems some people have a problem with this. An evidence-based case was made. This sends out the wrong message altogether.”
Joey Cunningham, a star of both gaelic football with Armagh and Irish League football with Portadown two decades ago, said the decision was particularly disappointing.
Cunningham Snr was subjected to horrific racist abuse during his playing career but believed those days had gone.
“A six-month suspension, rounded down to a four-month suspension, brings me to ask the question: why has this been done?” he said.
Cunningham added that he initially had faith that the Ulster Council would act decisively given the rhetoric of the time.
“All the right things were said and we thought that now was the chance to really nail this, put the GAA up there,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme yesterday.
“We are a stand-alone association, we look at things, we deal with things properly, but as far as I can see, it's just FIFA all over again. It's really, really disappointing from my point of view.
“People from the Ulster Council who were at the match saw it. I know for a fact they saw it.
“They know what was said, they know how it was said, they witnessed the whole buzz of the thing.
“For them to turn around and round this down to four months makes a mockery, in my opinion of this big thing that they are trying to sort out.”
He added: “This was going to be a brilliant test case, to see the GAA applying the full rigours of their law. But if this is the case, it has failed miserably as far as I am concerned.
“Soccer has really fudged the issue a little bit as well. But in cases they have actually put the suspension up, because when you appeal something, it's for two reasons; one, it stalls the suspension process maybe with a big match coming up or whatever.
“The other one is because the perpetrator does not want to own up to his own wrongdoing.”
McConville, meanwhile, added: “I and many people like me thought that Aaron Cunningham showed considerable courage in coming out and exposing this despicable racial abuse.
“He is a very intelligent young man and he obviously thought that by highlighting the evil it would help focus minds and maybe improve things going forward,” states McConville.
“But look what has happened. The matter has more or less been brushed under the carpet and I have no doubt that the problem will rear its head again.
“I would imagine that if Aaron were to turn the clock back knowing what he knows now and be faced with making the decision to air his views in public he would in all probability be saying to himself: 'Why should I bother?'“
And McConville is in no doubt that Kilcoo should have accepted what was handed down to them.
“To me there appeared to be irrefutable evidence.
“I don’t think what has happened now shows the GAA in a very good light.
“There are more and more players from ethnic minority groups in this country such as Lee Chin from Wexford who has also been the victim of racial abuse and we want them to feel welcome. I don’t quite think we are going the right way about that.”
Given his disappointment with the outcome of this case so far, Joey Cunningham is refusing to rule out other avenues of action, saying, “In my opinion, because I am a member of the association, I would like to think that I am treated the same as everybody else so therefore you let them deal with things, accept the decisions that they find and you just go with it.
“In hearing this, there are perhaps other routes that I should have went, and which I might go yet because I am definitely not happy with this verdict, not happy at all.”