# long read
'A bit done, and a lot more to do' - from frustration to GPA merger
Gemma Begley reflects on the journey so far with The42.

gemma-begley-announced-as-gpa-equality-diversity-and-inclusion-manager Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE To mark the first anniversary of the merger between the GPA and WGPA, Gemma Begley, a WGPA founding member, was announced as the GPA’s first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

2021 WAS THE first full year of the GPA, as we now know it.

In December 2020, inter-county players from both the Gaelic Players Association [GPA] and Women’s Gaelic Players Association [WGPA] voted to merge into a single 4,000-member representative body.

12 months on, to mark the first anniversary of the merger, Gemma Begley, a WGPA founding member, was announced as the GPA’s first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

The former Tyrone and current Carrickmore footballer sat down with The42′s Emma Duffy earlier in 2021, for an in-depth interview to reflect on the journey so far.

The conversation began with a trip down memory lane: to the 2013 camogie All-Star awards when WGPA founding chair Aoife Lane heard Donal Óg Cusack encourage female players to organise themselves. Her “curiosity was piqued,” and it all snowballed from there, with Lane the main driving force.

The WGPA launched in 2015 with the Making Things Better report.

“The main things that came back from that was around minimum standards, facilities, expenses, food after training, gear, things like that,” Begley picks up. “I suppose you’re looking to the men’s game and how far they have managed to come over the last couple of decades.

“I probably felt there was more untapped opportunities out there for the female game and female players. A lot of it was born out of frustration, of the experiences of females.”

Open round-table sessions brought together players from different squads across the country, sharing the same experiences and frustrations.

“It was really encouraging and powerful to hear people start to come up with solutions and maybe see a way forward,” Begley adds. “It was a bit of an awakening, I would say, empowering of the players.

“I got involved myself out of that same sense of, number one, frustration around some of the experiences, but number two, also seeing opportunities where we could come together and do things better. I’m passionate enough myself about bigger social issues around equality and empowerment, and I just didn’t like feeling like we were having sub-standard experiences and second-class experiences.

“We were probably all getting towards the end of our own playing careers as well. That first executive, we probably were confident enough in our own skin. We all had our own independent voices, and being able to use your voice to make changes for others was very much the feeling of the group. To be able to nearly give something back as well. Just using your platform for good.”

Emma Duffy (ED): How badly was the WGPA needed at the time — maybe give me a few experiences from your own playing career? And the launch day, did it feel like something big, a landmark occasion?

Gemma Begley (GB): How badly was it needed? It was needed. After we launched, there was a stat around toilets and showers which got the main headlines. That wasn’t high on the talking points around the table that we did with the players, but it seemed to capture the public imagination. The fact girls didn’t have toilets to use after training a lot of the time seemed to shock people. I don’t know whether it’s an Irish thing or a woman thing, you just get on with it, and accept that that’s your lot and you have to get on with it. There was a sense of, ‘We need to change that mindset, first of all, and get players to stand up.’ One of our core values was always about challenging the status quo. We felt that was central to what we were doing. We were just saying, ‘Look, it’s not good enough anymore. We need everybody to come along with us and believe in that.’

wgpa-launch Ryan Byrne / INPHO Pictured at the launch of the GPA; (L-R) Camoige players Anna Geary of Cork, Wexford's Kate Kelly, Clare's Deirdre Murphy, WGPA Chairperson Aoife Lane with footballers, Valerie Mulcahy of Cork, Mayo's Fiona McHale and Tyrone's Gemma Begley. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Shannon Quinn tells a good story about playing with Tyrone and bringing a bowl of Cornflakes and a jar of milk onto the bus with her when she was going to play an away game. So that tells you where we were at in them few years before that. In terms of having to rank the priorities of what the players’ body should work on, the minimum standards did come back as the number one priority. That covered things like your experience at county level, your access to facilities, your access to physio, your strength and conditioning coaching; that was broadly just about players wanting to be the best they could be. At that point, it was probably more of a selfless thing. Expenses or anything like that probably wasn’t on the radar as much as just wanting to be the best athlete that could be at that time. Deirdre Murphy really had the first notion of the fact that the government grants could be used to help improve playing experiences for the collective group and to try and raise minimum standards for everybody. That came soon after the launch, but that probably was the basis for the initiation of the government grants — that bit of research, and the feeling that… like, players didn’t even have access to fairly regular and consistent physio, strength and conditioning coaching, things like performance analysis and nutrition was very much in the minority at that point, five, six years ago. When we got to launch point, there was a great energy amongst the media and the public. There was an awful lot of positivity. The first thing really announced on the day was the launch of the counselling helpline. I think it was on the back of Dónal Óg and Valerie’s documentary [Coming Out Of The Curve], it was on the weekend before… I remember Valerie was a talking point at the time. She was actually the one who spoke about the launch of the counselling helpline on the day, and it was the first thing we were able to offer to all the players. That was even really positive, it was something new and grabbed imagination. But again, it was very much the sense of the unknown. It was new ground, probably none of us knew where it was gonna go but once we had established a realistic lie of the land and that the player consensus was behind it; what came after that, we would figure out solutions to the challenges as long as we had that bit of work done.

Coming back to myself… in terms of kit or anything like that, you’d maybe get a top and a hoodie for championship. Food-wise, you’d get maybe soup and bread after training or you might get nothing, and you’d be driving up and down to Belfast getting no travel expenses. Pitches-wise, we would have been nearly all over the place. There was no consistent access to one central training base. Physio probably wouldn’t have been too bad, physio was always sort of there but facilities… I know playing in Omagh was still rare enough at that point. It was just very much frustration with not being able to be the best that you can be. The other thing; it’s fairly common with ladies teams, I’d say a lot of players would empathise with this; you’d have one year where you’ve a really good manager, a good county board and a good set-up, things are brilliant, and then in the click of a finger, it slips right back to being a really bad coaching set-up, bad county board, 13 players turning out for your training sessions. It’s probably just trying to make that a bit more consistent and bring better coaching teams in and give them better resources to work with, to try and… a rising tide lifts all boats, isn’t it? I’m trying to think of any particularly bad experiences I can give you, but it mainly was around players’ apathy, the lack of turnouts at training and things like that because of not feeling like it was worthwhile, which is not the way it should be when you’re representing your county.

ED: Definitely not. And then Gemma, significant milestones and events, the WGPA’s achievements – there’s plenty, you’ve mentioned a few there. But any more big ones?

GB: The report, obviously at the launch day. And then on the back of that, the government grants being introduced was probably the biggest thing. After that, a lot of it was around services and the development; things like scholarships — I think we had eight the first year and we’re probably gonna be up tenfold on that this year, within six years, it’s brilliant growth. The Madden Leadership Programme was the first thing the lads had done that was across both men and women equally. That was because of Michael Madden, that was his view of the world. It’s a complete tribute to him that that was the first programme across both men and the women… the counselling helpline was the first big thing, and it’s just been a steady growth and engagement with that. It’s been there and available for anyone in the background in the meantime. And going back to the recognition piece; the LGFA and Camogie Association did officially endorse us fairly early in our existence as the official playing body — the GAA and GPA went through an awfully turbulent time at the start. We had got the recognition fairly early on. I suppose one element of it was to enable the grants to be administered, but it was nice too that we didn’t have to go through a lot of the confrontational stuff; we always tried to be as diplomatic and collaborative as possible. Being recognised by the two Associations was an early highlight as well. The Camogie rules review probably was something that we hadn’t really done – not since the launch, we hadn’t really done research, and then fed back into policy changes. The Camogie rules review, I think it’s been fairly roundly welcomed by players this year, the changes, they all seem to be very positive about it. I suppose up to lately, the big thing has been the merger.

joanne-osullivan-with-gemma-begley INPHO Begley playing for Tyrone in 2005. INPHO

The merger is one side of it, we can talk about that after as well, but just the Levelling The Field report as well… it’s kind of like Deja Vu of 2015, you’re releasing these stats, and it’s it’s commonplace to players, but it kind of shocks the public and you’re going, ‘I feel like we kind of just feel like we’re complaining about this the whole time and people should know.’ But there was a good response on the back of that – the fact the Oireachtas committee now are having a hearing on it is massive, to be fair, in terms of looking at funding. It is actually bigger societal questions that you’re tapping into is around equality and gender budgeting and the impact that has on females’ lives and their place in society. It’s not really just about getting travel expenses for females either. That’s pretty big. Sport Ireland are currently reviewing the grants as well, both the men and the women. That’s probably the biggest win on the back of the Levelling The Field report so far, to be getting a hearing in front of government is massive. So, excited about what will come out of that hopefully.

The Oireachtas Hearing spelled out the large discrepancy, with significant strides made since. In 2021, the GPA held its first AGM as a merged body, established a new gender-balanced board of directors, and welcomed increased government funding for female inter-county players, with parity earned.

The Association continued its excellent work from previous seasons across all codes and genders, with former Mayo footballer Tom Parsons the new CAO.

ED: Following on from that, how the Levelling The Field report is Deja Vu… have things changed massively over the years, even from your own perspective?

GB: Well definitely there’s more consistency around physio, strength and conditioning coaching, the supports around a team – that’s probably been the biggest day-to-day change, and that has a knock-on effect of the quality of backroom teams you can have involved. That’s what players wanted, minimum standards. So I’d say that’s been the biggest change for everybody, for all 1500 members. There’s no excuse for any team now not to have your S&C coaches, your physios, your nutritionist, if you want them — your performance analysis, whatever it is — the funding is there for it. In terms of off the field, especially in the last 12 months, there’s no shortage of programmes for players to help their professional development as well — things like the leadership programmes, counselling supports, the business development programmes, the Next Gen leadership programme. We’re doing rookie camps, transition camps for players that are retiring. It probably felt like an add-on before for a few members, but really, in the last 12 months, it’s become just that every player should be available for like three or four of these services at some point throughout their journey and their inter-county career. It’s all there for them, so there’s no excuse. Sometimes, players say that their football career held them back in their professional career and that, so hopefully mitigating that side of it and dealing with the athletic identity issues a small bit earlier in players careers [helps]. The profile is obviously raised as well, but we’d just have a small part to play in that; maybe that players are on TV more, they’re more in the media, things like the 20×20 campaign and TG4 have certainly played a big part in that as well. And at that, I suppose it is probably only the top 3 or 4% of our of the players that will actually benefit from that. But everyone feels the knock-on effect of the coverage of the game. That’s all the positive side of it but in some ways, you look at the facilities and travel expenses and things like squad charters, that’s the next phase, that’s the next challenge. We probably feel like we’ve done something meaningful on minimum standards, but there’s still an awful lot that maybe hasn’t changed and you would like to… I suppose I’m always impatient, probably want it done tomorrow. But there’s bigger structural changes and some stuff that we don’t really have control over but we continue to work on so. So yeah, a bit done, and a lot more to do.

ED: Moving onto the merger with the GPA, how has that been? How did it come about, and bring me through the reaction and what’s next?

GB: It’s kind of all out there now. It was sort of two years in the making from 2019 at both sets of AGMs, the GPA and WGPA members voted for it — to approve to go ahead with it. An awful lot of work went on in the background between ourselves, and we had a joint committee or working group set up – myself and Maria [Kinsella] from the WGPA side, and Paul [Flynn] and Ciarán [Barr] in the GPA done most of the work on it. At the start, we were probably weighing up options and looking at whether it was better to have sort of a brother and sister relationship or go all in, but I suppose the more we looked at it, it was just an absolute no-brainer that we would just all come under the one and give everyone’s attention to raising standards and improving the lot of all players, putting that collective effort behind everyone. Because we’d already seen from the off-field stuff, it makes so much sense to be aligned. Once we had made the philosophical decision, it was very much just about drawing up the structures and the policies. Really since last summer, I suppose, we made good progress on updating the constitution and planning how it would actually be done, and kind of got to the point then of we were happy with what was proposed. We had agreed on having one NEC [National Executive Committee], which had proportional representation of the male and female membership. We have two joint chairs — a male and a female, and then two other officers; one which is President, one secretary and one of each of them have to be male and female. We’ve good protections built in for the females; that was what made us comfortable to sign up. The main issue when we talked to our members was the fear of losing their voice within the bigger organisation, and their priorities being lost out on. But we have a guaranteed minimum of 30% female on any subcommittees that are ever set up, we have 50/50 representation on the board of directors. If there’s any changes to the constitution or anything like that, it needs 70% approval of the NEC. It’s very tight constitutionally and very, very fair that way. At the minute, the NEC is 60/40, in favour of the lads because of the number of players. The lads have 2,200 members and there’s 1,500 female members — but say if Fermanagh set up a camogie team next year, there’s no reason why, in time, that won’t get to 50/50 as the female game grows.

aoife-lane-valerie-mulcahy-and-gemma-begley Ryan Byrne / INPHO Aoife Lane, Valerie Mulcahy and Begley and the 2017 Camogie All-Stars. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Very happy. Sure it was near unanimous approval, that was probably the best thing; that the players all bought into the vision of it. This is what we say; younger members are just so used to that, in terms of college and work and everything basically outside of sport, that equality and gender equality now is just the natural thing. You see social activism across the world has just exploded; this year between Black Lives Matter and the Me Too Movement. I feel, in a way, it’s loosely connected to that; that players are very much in tune with what’s the right thing to do, and being leaders within their communities and good role models. It’s been roundly positive, and I’d say the overriding feeling is just excitement as to where it can go. It’s not going to be fixed overnight; girls aren’t gonna turn up and get travel expenses tomorrow morning. There’s still obviously different agreements and different income streams for the two games. But it’s a very important first step and a very exciting platform for us to build from. *** Now there’s sort of like six months of a ‘figuring it out’ phase. Internally, we’re trying to figure out who does what, on behalf of who. Because I suppose I’ve been doing everything for the girls up to now but it’s now sharing them duties out between all the GPA staff, and then the ongoing branding and name review. At the minute there’s a transitional NEC so basically everyone that was on the men’s or the women’s NEC before is now on one big NEC, but now we’re going to pare that down at the next AGM to an NEC of 16 members. At the minute it’s 36, far too big. After that then, they’ll drive the whole thing on forward, the next phase. They’ll come up with a strategy and body of work for the next few years. So yeah, all good.

ED: That’s brilliant. Anything else to add on the WGPA, or the merger?

GB: Maybe… As I said, the interesting bit about was the fact we weren’t sure on which way to go about it. And once the philosophical decision was made, then it was really easy. That was our part nearly done then. The constitution and everything sort of fell into place after that. And probably just to pay tribute to the lads – Ciarán Barr came in last year, the start of 2020 was it, and Paul’s only been there for two years and they’ve really been brilliant advocates for it and driving it on. They made the process easy as well. I think there’s probably something really powerful in that as well, the fact that two of the lads were the main driving factors behind it as well. So full credit to them and their role in it as well.

This transcript was shortened. Another interview with Gemma Begley about her own playing career and the strides made in ladies football throughout will be published in the coming weeks.


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