Sport GAA

Saturday 21 September 2019

GAA facilities rule needs refinement if not total abolition

How a Donegal club came to face suspension is a complicated story

'The fundraiser was reputedly based around a five-a-side soccer tournament where teams paid an entry free.' (stock photo)
'The fundraiser was reputedly based around a five-a-side soccer tournament where teams paid an entry free.' (stock photo)

Dermot Crowe

The controversy around the proposed suspension of a GAA club in Donegal for hosting an unauthorised fundraising event - one which involved non-GAA activity, in this case soccer - is deeply unfortunate, complex and tragic.

At the centre of it is a former member of the Naomh Colmcille club in Newtowncunningham, Paul Dillon, who has motor neurone disease, and for whom the event in question raised just over €5,000 towards his ongoing care. Dillon needs adaptable facilities in order to be able to remain at home and is already using a wheelchair.

Interviewed by a local journalist during the last few days, Dillon, who is a father of three and just 45 years of age, said he felt guilty at the prospect of his old GAA club, where he coached at various levels for 15 years, being suspended. A statement last week from Donegal County Board recommending the suspension, which the club will appeal on Tuesday, explained that the minimum period of suspension for holding an unauthorised tournament - eight weeks - had been applied.

The draconian law means that if it stands then the club's players will effectively be banned for its duration, which is ludicrous. But there are hopes that the club will escape the heftier penalty and escape with a warning and fine. How it managed to reach this stage is the question most people would like answered. But a simple explanation does not exist.

The club sent a proposal to Croke Park to have the event covered under the GAA insurance scheme. To avail of this you have to fill out an event management document satisfying certain criteria, but the GAA found the club to have supplied insufficient information and sought more. It does not appear to have been forthcoming. Details of the event would have been on the form, which was also seen by the secretary of the Donegal board, who would be notified by Croke Park as a matter of course.

The GAA has a reserve fund to cover hundreds of third-party insurance claims that land on its doorstep each year, where clubs take liberties and hold events that are not properly insured. For very good reason the GAA has grounds to be wary and treat events cautiously and demand much detail before offering cover.

In this case the club, trying to help a worthy cause and a valued former mentor, offered the use of its facilities for the event. But it was not the event organiser and it is uncertain how much control it had over the activities that took place, if any at all. It is even claimed that the activities were a mix of Gaelic games and soccer and so casual as to defy belief for many that such severe sanctions have been proposed.

The fundraiser was reputedly based around a five-a-side soccer tournament where teams paid an entry free.

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It is not thought that the insurance request was what prompted the subsequent investigation, as the event took place in late February and the board would have been aware of its sensitive nature. It was only in the last week that the news emerged of the club's proposed suspension, when it was notified that it had breached two rules, one dealing with an authorised event, the other with a non-GAA activity. It is unthinkable that the board, in a county where there has been a long tradition and co-existence of soccer and GAA, would take a heavy hand and lay down the law even if the club was careless in how it followed through on the paperwork.

It is suspected that a member of the club may have alerted the board to the event as having contravened GAA rule. A source said it was being claimed that the board received a detailed letter outlining the breaches and with photos of the event attached. Once the board received that letter of complaint it felt obliged to act.

There was some confusion over where the event took place, on what pitch and the club's arrangement in leasing that piece of ground. The pitch on which the tournament was held is on the club's grounds, on a second pitch normally used for training purposes. It was originally a soccer pitch and has kept the name even though the soccer club has long since disbanded. The pitch is recognised as being part of the club's complex, which is on long-term lease from the Catholic Church.

The GAA suffered serious criticism over the decision to oppose a proposed fund raiser for the late Liam Miller at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year because it contravened the rules at the time. That has been compared to this latest controversy but there is a key difference. In the case of Liam Miller's benefit game, Páirc Uí Chaoimh was sought because of its capacity. In this case there were other alternatives. In hindsight it is clear that the club and the organisers would have done things more scrupulously had they any idea of what was in store, even though they acted in good faith.

After the Miller controversy the GAA relaxed its rules on the use of county grounds, with a motion to Congress getting over 90 per cent support and allowing Central Council to make a call on a case-by-case basis. That followed a similar relaxing of rule for the national stadium Croke Park in the past. But clubs are unlikely to follow suit, even after this latest controversy which has heaped criticism on the GAA.

Clubs often face demands from other groups and sporting interests for use of their facilities, and the GAA sees the current laws as acting as a protection to prevent clubs from being placed under unfair pressure to share their facilities. In many cases they are barely able to cater for their own needs. After Donegal the rule precluding it needs refinement.

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