'Cost is being used as an excuse to close down rural Ireland'
GAA president Liam O'Neill has issued a stark assessment of modern-day Ireland, claiming that rural communities are being ignored, while the country is governed by urbanites, using cost to justify decisions that may have other motives.
The Laois man, who started his three-year term in office last April, urged rural communities to fight for themselves at a time when their way of life is under severe threat.
"Cost is being used as an exercise to close down rural Ireland. We're being governed by urbanites, who don't understand the value of rural life. We've become a society that knows the cost of everything, but we're forgetting about the value of things that matter," he said.
While the GAA stays clear of conventional politics, O'Neill believes it's time members made their case to the political establishment.
"The GAA will never get involved in social disruption, but we have to send out the message to our TDs and senators from rural Ireland that everything isn't just about cost. There's a bigger picture here, one which impacts greatly on communities and on the fabric of society," he said.
O'Neill said that he was stunned recently when, in conversation with a Government minister, he and others were told how costs could be used to drive through any measure, irrespective of the real reason.
"He said it's easier now to make any change in Ireland because you can put it all down to cost. I found that a chilling statement by a person in Government," said O'Neill.
O'Neill believes that as an organisation which thrives all over the country, the GAA has a responsibility to contribute as best it can in difficult times, but warns against expecting too much.
"There's a perception at the moment that there's a dearth of leadership in Irish society and some people are looking to the GAA to provide it. We'll always do our best, but our core business is playing games. All the ancillary activities that surround us in a cultural context are important, but ultimately, we're about playing games," he said.
"People say to us – what are you doing about emigration? What can we do? It's happening to us and on us – not because of us. If it was, we would fix it. Whatever impacts on wider society impacts on us".
He's strongly advising clubs against rushing into amalgamations in order to counteract reduced playing numbers, believing that once that happens, it's very difficult to regain identity later on.
O'Neill believes that this approach should be reflected in broader society, too, especially in relation to closing down rural garda stations and schools.
"If the local school is to be closed down, let it be done of educational reasons, not cost reasons. The same goes for the local garda station – if it's to be closed down it should be for the right reason, not just costs. It has been proven that when you close services, the amount of money you save is never equal to the amount it costs to replace the service or the knock-on effect on society caused by the closures," said O'Neill.