BY CHRIS MCNULTY
SEAN Dunnion’s phone went into overdrive on Sunday night.
He was enjoying an evening of celebration at Dom’s Pier 1 bar on Quay Street in his native Donegal town having been elected as the 42nd incumbent as Chairman of the Donegal Co Board a couple of hours earlier in the nearby Abbey Hotel.
Dunnion saw off the challenges of Mick McGrath and Charlie Cannon to land the top office in Gaelic Games in Donegal. His phone had over 100 unread text messages on Monday morning; a host of missed calls popped up; his email inbox was wedged with good wishes and other close friends took to Facebook to say: “Comhghairdeas”.
He follows Frank Muldoon from the Four Masters club into the Co Chairman’s position. A 44-year old employee of the Donegal County Council he’s one of the youngest Co Chairman to be elected in memory.
“The four days have been a bit of a whirlwind,” Dunnion told the Donegal News yesterday in an interview conducted in an office at the Public Services Centre in Letterkenny.
“The first thing on Sunday evening we went to Dom’s and I expected just a few friends, but I was overwhelmed with the crowd that turned out. A huge crowd was there and continued to come in, which was a shock to me – especially on a Sunday evening.
“I was very proud expecially for a number of older members of the club like Liam Mullen, Gerry Timoney, Walter Espey, Cathal McGonigle and Frank O’Donnell in particular. I could see the pride in their faces and was delighted for them.”
Dunnion himself had tears in his eyes some time earlier after the outgoing Chairman PJ McGowan confirmed that he had been the successful candidate. He defeated McGrath by 88 votes to 79 after Cannon’s elimination. The clicking of camera shutters surrounded the Four Masters table and as its Chairman took in the moment he got caught in the emotion when his family lined the corridor of the Abbey Hotel to offer their congratulations.
It’s an unprecedented step, surely, to go from being a club delegate one minute to being the County Chairman the next, though the elevation is not one which sends the well-spoken Dunnion dizzy.
“I appreciate that it might have rocked the boat, but it doesn’t faze me,” he insisted.
“I have faced challenges before at club level. They weren’t the nicest things to deal with, but when I do something I give a lot of thought to it and when I arrive at a decision I’m certain that it’s the right one.
“It doesn’t faze me because, in general terms, there was a feeling that it was a time for new faces. I do think that this is the start of change. I have no doubt that there are others out there who will be encouraged by this and who will put their names forward – that can only be a benefit. Healthy change is always welcome.
“I know I have a lot to learn and a lot of people to talk to. I’ll find my way, I have no doubt about that – and I have a lot of good people around me. I have people I can turn to for advice and bounce things off. I don’t feel alone in the job anyway.”
Dunnion had previously been nominated for the role, on a number of occasions, but his overseeing of a major development at Tir Chonaill Park in his native Donegal town saw him decline.
He said: “It was always in the back of my mind, but I never thought that I’d go straight into the top job. I feel that if you see the job’s there, you want it and you feel that the time is right, then you should go for it.
“I wouldn’t have been ready for it any sooner.
“I am content enough in my own mind that I have earned the respect of club delegates.”
Seen as one of county committee’s most astute and capable delegates, Dunnion was called upon to sit on the committee that oversees the development of the Centre of Excellence project and when the co treasurer, Grace Boyle, was looking for a spreadsheet and a formula for All-Ireland final ticket distribution Dunnion was one of two men (the other being Paul Carr, St Eunan’s) she turned to.
Since his election on Sunday, Dunnion says the reaction has been ‘overwhelming’.
He said: “With that comes an unnerving feeling that people have so much trust and expectations. I think they’ll give me time to find my feet, but I’m sure the honeymoon period could end if there are a few bumps on the road!
“Generally it has been unbelievably positive. I’ve been in touch with Aodh Mairtín (Ó Fearraigh, county secretary), Grace (Boyle, county treasurer) and Michael (McMenamin, county development officer) in relation to a few things. I spoke to Aodh Mairtín on Monday night and he told me to enjoy the next couple of weeks.
“I’ll enjoy Christmas now and McKenna Cup is coming on January 9th.”
This Sunday, he’ll have his first official engagement as the Co Chairman when he attends the Under 21 final in Convoy between St Eunan’s and Naomh Conaill. His first executive meeting will be chaired in early January, while three clubs have already invited him to attend their dinner dances.
“Look it, I appreciate the support I got from the clubs so I owe it to them to go around and meet the people. I’m looking forward to it.”
The support from clubs, ultimately, was what gave him the launchpad to run.
He said: “A number of clubs, even before the nominations came out – about five or six in particular – to me and said that I really should consider it.
“I’d been pulling my name out for a number of years, but based on that encouragement – and indeed a number of the executive asked me to consider it too – I decided that I might have enough support to let my name go forward. When I did declare an interest and started ringing, I got the feeling that there was an appetite for change. I decided then to give it full tilt.
“It’ll be a busy 12 months, but I look forward to getting stuck in.”
Dunnion hasn’t thought long-term just yet, but he hopes his portfolio will be carried for a three-year term. Short-term, there are two burning items on the agenda that are the talk of the town.
“Naturally we have to see Convoy through,” he says of the completion of the Centre of Excellence.
“The benefits that can be acrued out of it will be huge to our footballers, our hurlers, our ladies, our camogie players, our schools…the benefits to everyone will be immense. It has to be a priority for 2013.
“One of the immediate issues is whether we’re going to be able to host the Tyrone game. That will be top of the agenda in January. Can we get to a situation where we can host that game? Hopefully.”
Dunnion and his club Four Masters hit the headlines in October after voicing his displeasure at the manner in which his club had been forced to play six senior championship games in a 21-day spell.
The fixtures calendar is a perennial source of contention – and Dunnion accepts that 2013 will be no different.
“Structures and the playing of our games are ongoing issues,” said Dunnion – who believed that advancement was made in 2012.s
“I thought we actually took positive steps in 2012, although the League did run on a long time. The double weekends, though maybe not ideal, were something that needed to be tried. Maybe they just came too early in the year, but there was merit in them.
“In previous years, you didn’t know how many games you’d have your county players – some clubs could be missing them for eight or ten; others maybe three or four – but I was comfortable this year in that we knew there were only four games the boys weren’t going to be available for. That was a step forward.
“They’re always thorny issues. It’ll need goodwill by clubs and players – if they want games they’re going to have to play games. The issue around county players is something we need to speak to Jim about.
“I think it can be improved again for 2013, maybe when we have a forum in the New Year we’ll get some more new ideas. There are more Sunday available now with no preliminary round in Ulster, with a 16 team senior championship and also less teams in the intermediate championship.”
As a long-term delegate to county committee, Dunnion is well-versed in the problematic nature of some of these meetings – but he believes that the GAA in Donegal could do worse than take a lead from the County Council’s organisation of meetings.
He commented: “There are standing orders that are defunct which we we may look at again. I know from my Council background and the management of Council meetings, there are avenues to lodge questions in advance of meetings and have answers, rather than this throwing of things from the floor.
“Although I’m not involved in Council meetings, I’m aware of the structures they use with questions and motions in advance and having standing orders implemented on the day.
“Club issues need to be solved outside of county committee, so we can deal with finance, deal with Convoy, talk about the state of underage football or so-called ‘bigger’ issues for Donegal football and hurling.
“We need to run our affairs a little more professionally. I mean that collective, from myself and the Executive point of view and in relation to clubs. We need to think about how we’re promoting and presenting ourselves. We need to get more positive news out there – tell people about the good things that are happening.”
A bright day dawned on Donegal Gaelic Games on Sunday; now Sean Dunnion is aiming to lead the Association in the county into a new, golden era.