Tuesday 21 November 2017

Hickey hopeful new government will herald upturn in grants

Limerick hurler and new GPA chairman Seamus Hickey. ‘We made proposals and we’re still waiting’
Limerick hurler and new GPA chairman Seamus Hickey. ‘We made proposals and we’re still waiting’

Michael Verney

Much like rugby in New Zealand, soccer in Brazil and cricket in India, Gaelic games are ingrained in the Irish consciousness - playing a monumental role to bond communities, giving hope in hard times and providing one of the main talking points the length and breadth of the country for the 12 months of the year. For those reasons, and many others, new GPA chairman Seamus Hickey wants inter-county players to be rewarded appropriately.

After replacing Dónal Óg Cusack, who stepped down to join Davy Fitzgerald in Clare after 13 years at the helm, the Limerick hurler declared his "sole aim is to look after the welfare of inter-county players". And as this is the final year of the 10-year GPA grant scheme, Hickey is determined to follow through with his promises.

When the grants were first introduced, as part of a €3.5m deal, it was stressed that the scheme in no way impinged on the GAA's amateur status and that the association would not be liable should the government withdraw its funding. And while the funding hasn't been withdrawn, it was drastically cut, to €900,000, in 2009.

But such was the economic climate, as the country "went through the wringer", the 28-year-old accepts that cuts were necessary. But he also stresses how essential a resolution is, particularly given the signs of economic resurgence. Comparisons to the symbolic All Blacks highlight Hickey's belief that hurling and Gaelic football underpin Irish society.

"We need to re-establish it or we need to . . . because we believe we're in social partnership with the government anyway and we have a very good case," he said last week at Centra's Live Well hurling launch, which included the announcement that the retailer will continue its sponsorship of the All-Ireland hurling championship to 2019. "You see it with the All Blacks in New Zealand, what they mean culturally to their nation. I wouldn't draw an exact parallel, not putting us in the same bracket as the All Blacks, but it is still our national games.

"And it is an identity that is unique to us and it is us that represent that. So, the value we have as inter-county players is that we are local stakeholders in our community and our games. And we have that accessibility that some professional players don't have, and I wouldn't change that.

"Realistically, there were cuts across the board, education, health and everything. And everyone had to take it at the time. We took it because it had to be done. That is why we hope, as part of the upturn in the economy and upturn in the national finances, we would be recognised accordingly."

With cuts to education leading to higher pupil/teacher ratios, increased waiting lists as health spending was cut and so on, why does Hickey feel that the GAA be considered more important than any of the aforementioned? And why are they more, or at least equally, deserving?

Hickey feels the GAA, and sport in general, fully justifies the claims and firmly believes financial backing is a smart investment. "But those arguments will always be there," he explains.

"What is the role of sport in society and why do we place such an emphasis on it? Why does Ireland going to the Euros have such an effect on the national psyche? Or why does Ireland winning the Six Nations have such an effect on national psyche? Why does Clare winning the All-Ireland in 2013 give such a lift to the whole county? What is the role of sport and its effect on society?

"It has a huge role, even in our social development. Some of the first solutions to social problems, especially inner-city, is through sport.

"I would see any money put into the inter-county game as an investment and a progressive thing for our games, and in our society. When it was introduced, it was a real, I suppose, a real positive for inter-county players to be actually recognised for the contribution to, I suppose, Irish life and the economic windfall for the inter-county game as well.

"Independent valuations will put that at whatever, but the government acknowledged that and acknowledged the role that inter-county players have in their local communities and on the national stage."

So with his belief that the GAA is invaluable to the country, is the Murroe/Boher clubman seeking to restore the initial €3.5m figure? As with anything of this nature, red tape rules and it will take time, and a lot of patience, especially with the forming of a minority government. Through their dealings with the Department of Sport, GAA grants are unlikely to be top of any manifesto.

"The only thing I can say is there is nothing set down yet. We sat down with the government prior to the election, and said we were going to sit down when a new government was formed. We made our proposals and we made our representations and we are still waiting. That (the minority government) has to bed down and it is a long road to go down with that," said Hickey.

A long road indeed.

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