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Friday 19 April 2019

Heartland of the community or the Grab All Association?

The controversy over Liam Miller's memorial match has badly damaged Brand GAA. In a ­summer in which it should have been celebrating a ­revitalised football and hurling schedule, Croke Park bigwigs have lurched from one PR disaster to the next

GAA headquarters: Croke Park has been used for other sports including rugby and soccer internationals. Photo: Brendan Moran
GAA headquarters: Croke Park has been used for other sports including rugby and soccer internationals. Photo: Brendan Moran
Ed Sheeran performed at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in May. Photo: Arthur Carron
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was 1991 and heady times for Gaelic football. Down had become the first Ulster team to win an All-Ireland title in 23 years and Dublin and Meath had played an epic four-match tussle in the Leinster Championship.

As winter set in, the Ringsend, Dublin-based GAA club Clanna Gael Fontenoy had a novel fundraising idea. It would invite Down to play Dublin in a challenge match on December 15. But the match would take place in a non-GAA ground, the RDS. Now home to Leinster Rugby, it served a very different purpose in the early 1990s: temporary home to Shamrock Rovers, the country's most successful League of Ireland club.

Match organisers hit upon the idea that a game between Rovers and their arch-rivals Bohemians would be the perfect curtain-raiser for the Down-Dublin game.

It was an event which captured the imaginations of sports lovers - and the ire of the GAA. A month before the double-header was due to take place, reports emerged that senior executives at Croke Park were very uneasy about Gaelic football and soccer sharing a bill - and playing at a venue that had never hosted GAA matches before.

The row rumbled on for weeks and, in the end, the event never went ahead. It was a debacle that reopened old wounds among traditionalists in the GAA and the association's detractors, who felt they were living in the past.

This week, 27 years on, and the GAA found itself in a similar row - but one that has provoked even more passions. And this fundraiser isn't for a GAA club, but for the family of former Ireland international soccer star Liam Miller and for the hospice in Cork city that cared for him in his final months battling cancer.

On paper, it seems like a dispute that's easy to settle. The memorial match is due to take place in Turner's Cross, Cork City FC's home ground, on September 25, and will feature the likes of Robbie Keane and Rio Ferdinand playing in a Manchester United v Celtic friendly.

But all 7,500 tickets were snapped up in minutes. Soon it was suggested that the game be moved to Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the home of Cork GAA, and by far the largest stadium in the city. Completely rebuilt in recent years, it opened for business last summer and boasts a capacity of 45,000.

But the GAA refused permission for the match to be played there, arguing that under its rulebook it could not sanction its grounds outside Croke Park to host other sports.

The backlash this week was severe. Former international Damien Duff, who will play in the memorial match, branded the GAA hierarchy "dinosaurs" and suggested "they hang their heads in shame".

And there has been an outcry over the way the GAA has handled the situation, not least when it said it had sought legal advice that the €30m of taxpayers' money that had been spent on the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh did not compel it to sanction events like the Miller memorial there.

Writing for 'Independent.ie' this week, sports columnist Ewan MacKenna captured the mood of many: "It was a head-in-hands moment, and it's not overstating it to equate it with a child going in to visit a terminally ill friend in hospital, refusing to let the friend play with his toys as they are his, and being backed up by his present parents for being technically correct."

The Omagh friendly

The GAA were adamant that its rules do not allow for non-GAA codes to be played in its stadia. They were rules that put the kibosh on a proposed friendly in 1998 between Manchester United and Omagh Town at Tyrone GAA's county ground, Healy Park. Proceeds from the match were to go to a fund set up to aid victims of the Omagh bombing that year. But the GAA's own rules were causing confusion this week. "The GAA does not permit use of its playing facilities by other sporting bodies or for sporting activities other than those controlled by the association itself," one rule reads.

And contrary to what the association itself had claimed, special dispensation seems to be possible for events like the Miller memorial and it could be decided by Central Council, rather than a Congress vote.

The rule reads: "Central Council, as enshrined in rule, retains the right to sanction use of GAA facilities, from time to time, for field sports and for such other purposes it considers not to be in conflict with the aims and objectives of the association."

Former GAA president Seán Kelly said earlier this week if it was the case that the Central Council could make the decision, it should do so quickly, and urged it to allow the "event", as he called it, to go ahead.

"This is not an official soccer match. It is a special occasion with a very worthy cause. And if they're going to allow the event to happen, they should announce the decision quickly because it has been rumbling on too long.

"The only motivation I have is to see the GAA being as good as it can be. It's an organisation that means everything to me and to so many people in this country."

Crisis management specialist Paul Allen has watched the controversy unfold and believes the GAA has caused itself huge reputational damage.

"It's about simple optics and they should know that," he says. "Not allowing a memorial for an Irish sporting hero to take place in his own city - in the biggest stadium there - makes it looks so bad, and the dithering they have done over the past week has been unseemly for all concerned.

"They seem to have no problem allowing concerts to take place in their grounds - you'd Ed Sheeran in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a couple of months ago - and yet they said no to this rare request. It's like they're in an insular bubble and no one can convince them otherwise."

Kelly, now a Fine Gael MEP, says it is difficult to dispute the suggestion that the GAA has done significant damage to itself.

"If they don't allow the event to be played at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it will cause huge reputational damage to the GAA, and I've no doubt about that. In particular, it will cause enormous damage to the GAA in Cork, one they may never recover from. This is an opportunity to do the right thing."

As president between 2003 and 2006, he is regarded as one of the most modernising in the association's history. Under his watch, the GAA's Congress - the annual meeting of club officials - voted to allow Croke Park to accommodate rugby and soccer internationals while Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt. "That was seen as the right thing to do then - and it was - and this is the right thing to do now."

Nickey Brennan, who succeeded Kelly as GAA president, says he does not want to be drawn on whether or not Páirc Uí Chaoimh should be used for the memorial match.

"I am not privy to the conversations that have happened," he says, "but I do feel that there are rules that are not fit for purpose in the Ireland of today and they should be changed. They should be put to Congress, and this issue is something that certainly needs to be looked."

Brennan says he is saddened by the sort of vitriol that has been directed at the association this summer. "We can't forget that it's an extraordinary community organisation that has a positive impact all over Ireland. That message has been lost this week."

The summer of 2018 should have been a glorious one for the GAA. Both the football and hurling championships were completely overhauled with the introduction of round-robin hurling in Munster and Leinster and the 'Super 8s' competition at the business-end of the football season. They were measures to ensure more games, more excitement, greater exposure, larger crowds and, ideally, record revenues.

But Croke Park bigwigs have been dogged by controversy - and long before the Liam Miller situation presented itself. First, there was anger in Kildare - and the wider GAA community - that its match against Mayo would be played in Croke Park, and not Newbridge. It was a direct contradiction of the GAA's own rules and, initially, the association dug its heels in that it be Croke Park or nowhere.

The chair of the Central Competitions Control Committee, Ned Quinn, raised hackles when he suggested that there could be "animosity" among ticketless fans outside a sold-out St Conleth's Park in Newbridge. With Kildare standing their ground, Croke Park eventually backed down and the Lillywhites subsequently beat Mayo in the biggest shock of the championship.

And there have been misgivings about the structure of the Super 8s, which seemingly allows Dublin - the decade's supreme Gaelic football force - to play two matches at their Croke Park 'home'. The GAA has had to try to put out fires this week rather than market two of Ireland's great sporting occasions - the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals, which take place today and tomorrow. The all-Munster class of Cork and Limerick tomorrow is expected to draw more than 70,000 supporters and it's thought that banners castigating the GAA's stance on the Liam Miller memorial match will be displayed.

Reputation management specialist Donnchadh O'Neill believes the organisation has itself to blame for the disconnection that so many grassroots members feel towards it - as well as the animosity from the wider public.

"They're Jesuitical when it comes to their rulebook," O'Neill, managing director of Gibney Communications, says. "I've a large degree of sympathy for the GAA - it's a complex, member-based organisation trying to run itself democratically. But it's using as its fallback an archaic and arcane set of rules that just aren't fit for purpose in a modern era.

"We're in a social media era," he adds, "and it's driven by its star ex-players who all have a platform and a strong influence, and the GAA is expected to be nimble, responsive and transparent - and it just can't be. Now, they're being challenged and they're coming across as ivory toweresque."

When contacted for comment by Review earlier this week, the response from a GAA spokesperson was terse: "We won't be commenting publicly at this time as per statement yesterday [Tuesday]".

And it's this lack of communication that has caused so much irritation, according to Paul Allen.

"Rather than manage this crisis properly, they have allowed it to drag on. And coming out of a meeting with the Miller organising team and saying that they would 'consider' it and would make no further comment simply antagonised people more."

A Croke Park source says the week has been an especially challenging one at headquarters.

"Yet again, the GAA are being presented as the bad guys. But, believe me, the association is trying to do the right thing - and the right thing by our members. I agree it could have been handled better but the Liam Miller match was sprang on us and then it went viral on social media."

He says much of the commentary has been "one-sided" and says executives have been especially hurt by Damien Duff's "dinosaurs" comment.

"It was a cheap shot. You need only look around Croke Park to see that this is a progressive organisation."

The source says much of the upset among the GAA hierarchy stems from social media barbs that suggest the organisation is solely interested in money. A persistent narrative has revolved around the idea that Croke Park mandarins are happy to rent out GAA stadia to Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran - for a rumoured €1m per show - but refuses to allow a memorial match that would deliver nothing to the coffers.

"That's absolutely not the case and it never has been. But you can't control what's on social media. The ignorance there is staggering."

It's not the first time the GAA has had to contend with allegations that it is money obsessed, or with unflattering sobriquets like 'Grab All Association'. In 2014, Independent TD Clare Daly used that term - already in wide use on social media - to describe the GAA's renting of the former Columb Barracks in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.

Reputational damage

Donnchadh O'Neill says reputational damage has been done, but the GAA has to act soon to ensure its brand remains strong.

"In Ireland, we're seeing reform to varying degrees of effectiveness of our oldest institutions, banking, healthcare, the church," he says, "and the GAA needs to get with that. The reform needs to come from the top down. We've a brand new president and chief executive in the GAA and there's a lot of scope to take the learnings from the last few months and move on from here.

"When they opened Croke Park [to other sports], the sky didn't fall in and life goes on. But all that seems a little bit quaint now and it's clear that the GAA didn't move decisively to keep progress going. They need to start doing that now."

Peter Quinn was president of the GAA in the early 1990s. His tenure is remembered for laying the foundations of what would become the revamped Croke Park we know today - Europe's fourth-largest stadium. But some remember him as the president who said no to that RDS double-header. Years later, then GAA PRO Danny Lynch recalled telling Quinn that "from a PR perspective, [refusing to give the go-ahead] it was the wrong thing to do. Your presidency will be remembered for this and nothing else."

The current incumbent John Horan - Dublin's first president since 1924 - is likely to be acutely aware of how the Liam Miller-Páirc Uí Chaoimh controversy will impact on how his tenure is regarded in the years to come. The clock is ticking.

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