Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue column: We must all follow Danny Murphy's lead

By Declan Bogue

To mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of the GAA, the now-defunct Sunday Tribune compiled a list of the 125 most influential people in the Association in 2009.

A prominent name was Danny Murphy, the Chief Executive of the Ulster Council. They captured him perfectly with the phrase 'the progressive conservative'.

Last Friday, Murphy announced his retirement after 16 years in the job. In total, he has given 35 years of service to the Association, combining it with his farming and, of late, deteriorating health.

Under the guidance of the Burren clubman, the GAA in Ulster emerged from a post-Troubles world to be a guiding light for sport and for community-driven cohesion. The phrase 'Unionist outreach' could have been patented by Murphy, as he sought a greater understanding and appreciation of the various traditions at play in this corner of the world.

It's not just easy platitudes. Look at the examples of his work.

In a meeting with the Governor of the Maze Prison, he was able to use the hum of a background cricket radio commentary to strike up a conversation on the thwack of leather upon willow. Murphy emerged from the meeting getting what he came for.

When the DUP's Edwin Poots held the portfolio of Culture, Arts and Leisure, they would talk farming, moan about farm gate prices and how drop calves were well back.

He knew his onions when it came to merging bodies and cutting out excessive bureaucracy. Noting the family ties within the GAA, Murphy pushed the 'One Club' model in Ulster, which tied camogie and ladies' football into the GAA club umbrella.

And he has been generous with his own expertise, and that within the Ulster Council. For example, at the end of this month, a joint seminar between the Ulster branch of Irish rugby, the IFA and the GAA will be hosted on the issue of club volunteering at the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast.

The GAA will share its expertise in growing a sustainable volunteer base, and how to recruit, reward and retain them. It remains a regret of Murphy's that the proposed shared space of a stadium at The Maze did not come to fruition.

Trevor Ringland MBE admits that his decision to depart the UUP in 2010 was influenced by his friendship with Murphy.

"Whenever I took the decision to leave the Ulster Unionist Party, it was basically because of people I met in the GAA like Danny, who I shared a lot of the same values with and who have been reaching out the hand of friendship," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"If people reach out the hand of friendship, then there is an onus on you to take it, particularly when you have a tremendous level of respect for that person.

"Sport has a tremendous influence, so by the leadership shown by Danny in particular, it impacts on the wider society.

"I couldn't give him enough credit for the quiet, but strong, leadership he has shown."

For all that, however, he was no lofty administrator out of touch with the games he governed.

During a lunch in April 2012, he told this reporter of his time as a selector for Pete McGrath when Down won the All-Ireland in 1994.

At the beginning of that season, he measured each player's ability to touch their toes and reach beyond, and from then on worked to improve their flexibility.

Nowadays, functional movement is at the cutting edge of sports science applied in Gaelic games.

Who will be his successor is of crucial importance to Ulster and Central Council. Ger O'Connor, the games manager in Dublin and a Tyrone native, has been mentioned.

From within there are a few candidates, while we could not rule out a return by Ryan Feeney, who departed to work for Queen's University several months ago.

Whoever it is, they can use Murphy's templates and take on some of his beliefs and principles.

A shining example is when the GAA chose to invite the Queen to Croke Park five years ago.

Asked about what was at the time a momentous gesture, Murphy cited Martin Luther King jr when he said: "The time is always right to do what is right."

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