Saturday 22 July 2017

Peter Quinn: the dreamer in chief behind revamped Croker

From left: Liam Mulvihill and Peter Quinn with architect Des McMahon unveiling a revamp of Croke Park in March 1993. Photo: Dominic Ledwidge O'Reilly
From left: Liam Mulvihill and Peter Quinn with architect Des McMahon unveiling a revamp of Croke Park in March 1993. Photo: Dominic Ledwidge O'Reilly

Simon Rowe

Peter Quinn is probably best known for two things: first as the man who, as GAA president, was the dreamer-in-chief behind the new Croke Park stadium; and secondly, as a brother of former bankrupt billionaire Seán Quinn.

As a chartered accountant and financial adviser by profession, Quinn helped usher in a new commercial era in the organisation, playing an instrumental role in forging a closer alliance between business and the GAA.

In a move that was mould-breaking in April 1997 - for the first time in its 113-year history - a high-powered committee chaired by Quinn recommended that players be allowed to earn money from their profiles as GAA stars.

This recommendation was the key element in a series of proposals drawn up by the committee after a wide-ranging review of the amateur issue.

Under his chairmanship, the committee recommended that "players be allowed benefit from off-field activities including product endorsement, but excluding playing gear and products in competition with national, company or own club sponsors".

The recommendation was one of nine, covering issues from expenses to holiday funds and insurance, that were later agreed by the GAA's Central Council.

From that point on, there was no going back.

At the time, however, it was a deeply divisive issue.

Looking back on those tumultuous events now, with the benefit of hindsight, the dispute seems almost quaint.

The committee's recommendation on product-endorsement was welcomed at the time by Kilkenny hurling star DJ Carey. "It's obviously a step forward," he said. "I don't think it's breaking anyone's amateur status - it just means we can endorse a product and get paid for it. If rugby and soccer players can do it, why can't we?"

In one fell swoop, the commercial flood gates had opened. And the GAA has been walking a tightrope ever since, balancing the demands of its amateur ethos on the one hand with the lure of corporate funding on the other.

An admirer of Seán Lemass and Barack Obama, Quinn embodies a combination of those men's political qualities: business savvy mixed with eternal optimism.

Those qualities stood him in good stead when he had to deal with a number of contentious issues, including the controversial debate over the scrapping of Rule 21 and Rule 42.

Fermanagh-born Quinn argued forcefully that a fledgling peace process dictated that the GAA should end its ban on British security forces playing Gaelic games and that the 'foreign games' of rugby and soccer should be accommodated in Croke Park - the GAA's hallowed home and the site of the Bloody Sunday attack of 1920 by British auxiliary forces which left 14 dead.

Rule 21 was eventually repealed in 2001. Rule 42 - the ban on any sports other than Gaelic games being played at Croke Park - was repealed soon after in 2005.

"We all knew those two bans had to go eventually," said Quinn. "But we also knew that getting rid of them at the wrong time would send the wrong signal. And so it wasn't until the Peace Process had got legs that we could move those two bans, and we did."

Those changes had an immediate effect on the GAA itself. "The GAA has become a more open organisation, and that's only right because our games can stand in comparison to any other games in the world," said Quinn.

The changes had a positive effect on the GAA's bottom line, too. Repealing Rule 42 meant that Croke Park chiefs could boost the stadium's coffers by hiring it out to rock concerts, rugby and soccer matches, American Football and Aussie Rules matches. Ker-ching!

Throughout his life in the GAA - as player, administrator and president - Quinn's record of achievements is impressive.

Ever since a medical scare at age seven, which resulted in him having to inject penicillin every day for 20 years, Quinn always displayed a steely determination to do his best for club, county and country.

One of his proudest achievements was playing football with his brother Seán for Teemore, and captaining the team that won the Fermanagh Senior Football Championship in 1969.

In recent times, however, it is events away from the playing pitch and the GAA boardroom that have cast a shadow over his family's legacy.

Ever since the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, Quinn has been embroiled in controversy relating to the collapse of the Quinn Group, which was formerly controlled by his brother Seán, once known as 'Ireland's richest man'.

Seán was jailed in 2012 for contempt of court for selling off assets worth millions of euro, despite a court order, to ensure that they could not be reclaimed.

But the successful redevelopment of Croke Park as a world-class stadium is Quinn's real legacy.

His presidency embraced the vision of a redeveloped stadium that would shine across the world as a beacon for Gaelic games and culture.

"The rebuilding of Croke Park represented a vote of confidence in our future," he said of that momentous decision in 1992. "That confidence had a cathartic effect on the association and made them more amenable to change and development."

The finished product is "the finest stadium of its kind and the best stadium owned by any amateur organisation in the world," he said.

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