News Colm O'Rourke

Monday 15 September 2014

Coln O'Rourke: Clubs need a Roosevelt to help beat great debt burden

The GAA should attempt to write off some of the loans that are crippling clubs, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00

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T his week there has been some comment on the steps being taken by the Thomas Davis club in Tallaght to tackle a serious debt problem. It is only the tip of the iceberg. There are stories like this in every county, and there are county boards who are in major financial difficulty as well. Much of this money was borrowed in the middle of the last decade when Ireland was a different place to what it is now.

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What has happened since is that the debt burden has become crushing, revenues to all clubs and counties have fallen, at best a little, but more generally a lot so furnishing repayments to banks has become an intolerable strain on bodies whose purpose is to supply games, not act as financial gurus.

If the law of the jungle prevailed in these situations, the trustees of the various clubs could be held responsible or the property could be seized and the asset used to generate the loan could be sold off. It would make for an interesting auction somewhere in the country if the banks seized the local pitch and put it up to the highest bidder.

There are not too many auctioneers who would take that one on. Anyway a pitch in a rural area is only worth farming prices and there are few farmers who would want to be tinged for a lifetime by getting into such murky waters. In towns and cities, it is not a whole lot different -- these lands are zoned amenity so they are worth nothing. Of course what has happened to Thomas Davis is that they are now severely penalised for doing the work of the local authority. It is the responsibility of the urban body to provide facilities for sport for the young population as is done in every other European country. Historically, the GAA has stepped in to do the job when others failed and have been left with it and the resultant financial headaches.

This is the same story in every town in the country; the brilliant investment in social capital is now keeping a lot of GAA administrators awake at night as they wonder what they have got their clubs into. They should not worry in the least. Any organisation which puts faith in young people and tries to improve things for them as previous generations have done has nothing to apologise for.

Laid out on a blank sheet the future for many clubs looks quite bleak. Projections made at the height of the 'boom' must be consigned to history. Falling revenues from sponsorship, membership, bar takings and all other club fundraising activity is merely a fact of life and is not coming back any day soon. Much worse is the fact that a lot of young people who facilities were provided for have left the country and won't be back for a while either.

Of course we can all complain that the banks were in a hurry to put the umbrella up when the sun was shining and took it down immediately when the rains came. Socrates is not needed for that assessment. It was ever so and there is not much point in getting hung up on that. In fact, I feel sorry for people who work in banks; they are under a lot of pressure too and many of them are active in clubs which are in financial trouble so it is not a pleasant job for them either.

Against this background the attitude of anything being possible which was the currency of five years ago has been replaced by anger, frustration and cynicism. It is like the USA of the thirties when the great depression struck. They had Roosevelt who gave hope and helped plot a way forward. Hopefully a new Government led by Enda Kenny can give people back some expectation that the future can be brighter. Certainly Kenny and other potential cabinet members like Jimmy Deenihan know as much about the problems of clubs as anyone in the country. They also know the value of a healthy GAA.

They have seen what working together for the common good can achieve, even if All- Ireland winning captain Deenihan at corner-back today would probably have three yellow cards before the parade is over! Yet with Kerry he exemplified a lack of self-interest or ego in order to help the team prevail. It is a bigger team now but the same principles prevail.

In the situation we find ourselves in there are plenty of ways for the GAA to help themselves. One of the not-so-nice aspects of the current crisis is the amount of people who write article after article full of bile and vitriol about recent events but offer no alternative. That is a very easy option and only brings out the worst in some individuals.

Most people understand the situation very well and want someone to plot a way forward, however difficult, but one which is credible and gives hope.

In the case of the GAA, this is a time of self-help, the same attribute which has created the magnificent facilities of today. It is a time

for county boards, provincial councils and the central authority in Croke Park to come together and get an accurate picture of the scale of indebtedness facing clubs all over the country.

After that there should be meetings with the financial institutions involved to work out a deal. These meetings would not take long as most of the money borrowed is either with Bank of Ireland or AIB. The task should be to get a write-down of part of the overall capital debt which is being carried by clubs and counties. Everyone would benefit pro rata.

It would mean the likes of Thomas Davis and hundreds of others are not being isolated in dealing with their bank. Would it not be ironic if these banks which are largely controlled by the state, which is the people, would spend billions bailing out the naked self-interest of others, while the one organisation that has always stood for everything positive has to pick up the complete tab for trying to do nothing more than improve their own communities?

It would be obscene for this to happen. Now is an opportunity for some leadership in the GAA to take on the banks and get the same deal as developers are getting, not interest moratoriums or rescheduling, but a write-off on some of the hundreds of millions of capital debt owed around the country. This would create enormous goodwill among the rank and file and would renew spirit in clubs who feel weighed down by this anxiety. Let's hope there is a Roosevelt in the GAA.

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