GAA must sort row over referees' expenses
Like them, loathe them, disagree with them, tell them what you think of them, but don't try to do without them.
That was the clear message emanating from refereeing circles yesterday after Longford referees followed Wexford's lead 24 hours earlier by declaring a withdrawal of their services over the issue of expenses.
Unlike Wexford referees - who cooled their protest on Monday following the intervention of the County Board chairman Diarmuid Devereux, who guaranteed that rates would stay the same until further review - Longford referees needed their strong concerns to be soothed by Croke Park where a statement issued yesterday evening declared regular payments will continue until the GAA engages in further talks with the Revenue on how the officials can claim their expenses.
No deadlines were mentioned, but it is understood that referees will continue to receive current rates until the end of the year, when the issue will be reviewed.
A handful of underage games in the county will now go ahead as Longford referees' co-ordinator Joe O'Brien confirmed that referees would be made available for those games.
So an uneasy peace exists. But referees are keeping a very attentive watching brief on this issue.
They know their value is far greater than any small monetary gain that is at the centre of these latest stand-offs.
One individual closely aligned to refereeing in Wexford underlined the level of belligerence there may be over this matter if it not resolved satisfactorily.
"If you thought the grey protest was bad a few years ago, wait until you see this," he declared to the Irish Independent.
For the GAA, it is potentially a far more serious issue than payments to managers.
The games will go on whether managers are paid over the odds or not.
But without referees, there is no show.
That's why the GAA sought to buy some time and allow for a cooling-off period yesterday.
How has it come to this? How has the focus suddenly shifted from payments to managers to payment to referees?
In recent months, there has been engagement by the GAA with the Revenue on a number of issues relating to financial governance.
Payment to managers would have featured prominently in those discussions because there was plenty of Revenue-related detail in the discussion document released last month.
In Tullamore last night, the latest three counties - Laois, Offaly and Kildare - were being briefed on the outcome of that engagement by a senior GAA finance officer and local provincial officers.
It is known that the GAA were keen to tidy up the whole issue of payments within the association, but referees' expenses has clearly now become the most contentious.
The system for payment of expenses to referees alters from county to county.
There is no uniformity with figures or how and when the money is paid.
One county, for example, may insist on a referee being paid straight after a game, while others wait for the receipt of a match report where mileage is logged and payment is then made monthly.
The vast majority of referees barely cover their expenses out of the standard €40 they get for taking charge of a game in many counties.
Some counties can go as high as €50 per game, Wexford for instance, but for underage games figures can drop to around €25.
If they take even two umpires along with them to a match, there is - more often than not - an obligation to look after them in some way, whether it's a post-match drink or something to eat.
What the GAA was proposing after discussions with the Revenue was a subsistence allowance of €13.71 in accordance with civil service rates for any journey that demands more than five hours away from base plus 50c per mile (GAA rates) after that.
The civil service mileage rate is just over 59c per km but is halved once a 6,437 kilometres cap is reached.
Other proposals were discussed, such as paying a standard fee and taxing it at source but the €13.71 and 50c per mile with a €40 limit was being pushed in most counties over the last few weeks.
For referees making small journeys, that could represent close to a 50 per cent reduction to the €40 most were accustomed to getting. If a referee made a 20-mile round trip to a game he would pocket €23.71.
Most referees don't do it for money, though for some who have fallen on hard times it is no doubt a source of small income. A referee could take charge of up to 10 games in a week in busier counties, incorporating college, underage and senior matches to take him beyond the €300 mark.
In Longford, there were 35 referees at last night's meeting while another 10 were absent. Yet, Longford County Board paid out just over €35,000 to referees in 2011, a figure that excluded local league games and underage games where the host club pays the going rate.
The issue that has concerned the GAA, and consequently the Revenue, was the existence of flat fees for all matches in most counties.
That technically constitutes a payment liable to tax, not an expense. If there are ways around that, referees are sceptical and, significantly, the Longford referees' co-ordinator Joe O'Brien mentioned the word 'integrity' in the course of his radio interview yesterday morning.
This hardly constitutes a crackdown from the Revenue.
Advice was sought and given in accordance with guidelines.
For now the matter has some breathing space.
But the GAA has found itself caught in a difficult place between the country's taxation body and one group within the Association that simply can't be done without.
How GAA referees compare
Under proposed new Revenue guidelines, GAA referees will be paid €13.71 along with 50c per mile, but how does that compare with the other major sporting bodies.
In national competitions, umpires do not get paid, but they can claim for 20c per kilometre via an expenses sheet. If an overnight is required, it is booked and paid for by the Irish Hockey Association. Officials for international matches do not get paid.
All-Ireland League match referees are given a set fee that goes through payroll and is taxed. Division 1A and 1B matches command a fee of €170, while Divisions 2A and 2B come in at €100, while they are also given 50c per mile in travel expenses. There are accommodation and subsistence allowances where necessary.
Referees at junior matches do not get paid.
Referee fees work on a sliding scale depending on the level of competition, while payments also vary from league to league with one referees website quoting €35 as a match fee for an 'intermediate' game. Referees can also claim an additional 50c per mile. When contacted yesterday, the FAI stressed their referees are expected to look after their own tax affairs.