Tuesday 20 March 2018

Croke Park's fencing scheme the height of ignorance

Tommy Conlon

Well, as they used to say, a long threatening comes at last. Don't fence me in? They're finally fencing them in.

The barricades are going up on Hill 16, nine feet high, to be ready for the second All-Ireland football semi-final in two weeks' time.

The Croke Park mandarins have been softening up the public for this move with increasingly alarmist language over the last two seasons.

Pitch invasions are "exceptionally dangerous"; they create a "stampede" mentality, people could get "trampled" underfoot. They could get "badly hurt" or "seriously injured" in the crushing that takes place under the Hogan Stand. Eventually someone could get "killed or maimed"; there isn't just the possibility, there is the "probability of serious injury or death to patrons at our games."

Be the hokey. Are the burgers that bad? Is John Doyle still playing? If I fall on the Croke Park sward on the day that Leitrim win the All-Ireland, will I be trampled underfoot by the delirious hordes on their way to the Hogan Stand?

Okay. This is obviously a serious issue. But when you're being continuously hammered over the head with dire warnings and fearful pronunciations, it's hard not to avoid the feeling that you're being scaremongered by men in suits who think they know what's good for you.

Especially when they refuse to countenance the possibility that there is a feasible alternative to an outright ban.

Croke Park don't want thousands of people swarming onto the pitch after big games because it's dangerous. They're right, it is. But as of now, it remains potentially dangerous rather than actually dangerous. How so? Because the number of injuries sustained in all the years that crowds have been running onto GAA fields is tiny, probably a fraction of one per cent; and almost all of those have been minor injuries. Perhaps Croke Park could reveal the number and nature of injury events over, say, the last five years, to help separate fact from fear.

But of course the onus is there to take all necessary precautions before a serious incident happens, not after. And the major worries for officials are the crush situations that occur under the Hogan Stand during the presentation ceremony, and afterwards as the crowd is funnelled into exits onto Jones's Road. The exits are not designed to cope with these numbers. And if emergency services were needed to get in from outside, precious time would be wasted by the blockage.

Given this worst-case scenario, the GAA's senior figures have made a policy decision that has, so far, been rejected by its public. Or at least those members of its public lucky enough to enjoy All-Ireland victories by the teams they support. By trying to enforce an absolute ban, Croke Park has gone too far too soon. There is a disconnect between what they are asking, and what its members are willing to do.

And there is a disconnect because there is a credibility gap between the propaganda and the reality. The official line is that it is dangerous to go onto the field and partake in a collective celebration; the reality for most people who've done it is that it's completely safe. Not just that: it is also one of the happiest experiences of their lives. Croke Park has portrayed it as reckless and irresponsible when in fact it is an act of innocence. It's no wonder people aren't listening: they're not listening because it's not true.

Mickey Harte also made this point in a recent column for the Irish News. "The picture painted by those who want the practice ended is one that depicts complete mayhem. This is the language of war and confrontation used to describe what is essentially an act of euphoria and celebration."

The GAA had, and still has, an alternative which, for some reason, it has refused to contemplate -- at least in public. And that is to manage the post-match crowd incursion. Firstly, if supporters know that they will be allowed onto the pitch, it will immediately take the heat out of the situation. Tell them that there will be a 20-minute interlude after the final whistle, during which the players will have their own time and space together. Meanwhile,

stewards and gardaí will be putting a temporary infrastructure into place: perhaps a series of corralled sections into which the crowd will flow. A central aisle could be kept clear for emergency services. (In the case of Mayo winning the All-Ireland, a fleet of ambulances would automatically be summoned, to deal with their shocked fans.)

Supporters could then be systematically siphoned onto the field from the stands and terrace in an orderly fashion. No need to run, no need to panic -- everyone will get to see and celebrate the magic moment when the captain lifts the cup. Afterwards they can be stewarded to various exits around the ground. If this doesn't work, then the GAA can reasonably move to impose a blanket ban on pitch celebrations.

But in their anxiety over health and safety, they have perhaps forgotten to appreciate how special that moment is when a county's people converges on the hallowed ground in a state of communal joy. It is a moment in time that becomes a life memory for those who were there.

The GAA see it as a problem when in fact it could be transformed into a unique and enduring source of pride.


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