Sunday 21 January 2018

GAA can show politicians how to lift nation's mood

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IT'S only when you're out of the country and looking back in that you fully realise the damage loose talk can inflict at a time of national peril. Politicians may be so wrapped up in their own world -- where our Government staggers along like a boxer who has taken too many heavy punches and the opposition screeches indignantly, if not always coherently -- but the rest of us have to deal with a stark reality.

However painful that may be, it would be nice if our elected representatives showed some leadership, for no other reason than it's they who largely portray the image of Ireland to the international community.

I'm writing this column in a Kuala Lumpur hotel room, where the various TV channels are giving extensive coverage to Ireland's woes. CNN are especially busy on the case and since they have huge viewing figures worldwide, there are many people whose view of Ireland is shaped by the television images, not to mention the comments of our so-called leaders.

Over the last few days a number of politicians have been interviewed and, frankly, it's embarrassing. The Government side look about as convincing as a compulsive liar, while the opposition resemble kids who are revelling in the mayhem while knowing they can't be blamed for it.

It's a disturbing image but it's the one we're offering the world right now. And it's at a time like this that we need sport more than ever, not just in an ambassadorial role, but also as a focus for ourselves and our identity.

Direction

As the largest sporting organisation in the country, the GAA is best placed of all to show leadership and direction. In fairness, it's a role they have embraced in the past and there's no reason to believe the same won't apply now.

So what can the GAA -- and indeed the wider sporting community -- do to lift the national mood? As an example of how not to do it, the IRFU showed remarkable deftness over the last month by pricing tickets for the Autumn Internationals so high that they were left with swathes of empty seats in a brand new stadium.

Tax payers had contributed handsomely to the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road but many of them were prevented from enjoying the facility by a scandalous pricing policy. How bizarre and symptomatic of these mad times is that?

But then how crazy was it to redevelop Lansdowne Road to a 50,000 capacity while Croke Park remains idle between late September and St Patrick's Day before returning to slumber for five weeks?

Still, that's the existing situation so there's no point dwelling on it. Instead, sport must be positive, uniting like never before in an attempt to boost national morale, and lowering ticket prices is one obvious way of going about that. The GAA have introduced various group and family packages in recent years which offer good value, but something more radical is now called for.

President Christy Cooney has hinted that price reductions may be on the way but, in fairness to him, it's not something Croke Park can implement on its own. Provincial councils would also have to agree to it and since they are four largely independent republics there's no guarantee of unity among them.

The symbolism of price reductions would be almost as important as the actual cuts. Indeed, it's quite likely that reductions would lead to no significant loss of revenue as they might encourage more people to attend games. And even if there was a drop in income, it wouldn't cause any major problems -- obviously it would require a corresponding cut in expenditure, but that too could be achieved.

There were those who claimed back in the early 1990s that redeveloping Croke Park would bankrupt the GAA but it didn't quite turn out that way. On the contrary, the debt was cleared pretty quickly and that was before the GAA earned a €36m windfall from renting the stadium for rugby and soccer internationals over four seasons.

Ticket prices apart, the GAA can play an important part in soothing the national psyche over the next few years. The games will remain an integral part of Irish life but the GAA was always about more than just hurling and football.

Club loyalty is the essential glue that binds the whole organisation together and, in times like these, it's more important than ever. Clubs are losing players to emigration but that has happened before and they survived. Yes, some of them will be weakened but they won't be destroyed.

Previous recessions have shown that, when times are at their most dismal, the GAA has been central to the well-being of its members through the clubs and games. The same will apply now, simply because it must.

Whatever woes the country is currently experiencing, sport will be helpful in getting people through them. Can we say the same for politicians who continue to mismanage our affairs and then go on the international airwaves to further broadcast their incompetence and lack of vision?

McAteer 'ref pool' idea a certain hit

DOWN secretary Sean Og McAteer has come up with such a sensible suggestion that it should be fast-tracked onto the agenda for county conventions over the next few weeks. He proposes that different counties should pool their referees for major club fixtures so that local officials were not in charge of games in their own county.

For example, Down, Armagh, Antrim and Louth could come together in a referee-sharing agreement. His idea would surely be a hit with referees. It wouldn't reduce the number (or importance) of the games they refereed but it would remove them from their own localities and rivalries, making for an easier day's work.

Irish Independent

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