The GAA took its first steps back to 'normal' on Friday. They were timely, tentative steps. The time had come for the Association to relax its restrictions and start opening its gates again. The hard-line stance was beginning to look more and more out of step with the wishes of its members.
nd the rank and file don't want much, if truth be told. They are not saying county squads should go back training; or that club footballers and hurlers should start to train again either. They are not saying that we will be ready any time soon for club or inter-county championships to begin. But they do want the GAA to stand back and take a look at what is happening around the country and react accordingly. The one-size-fits-all approach is no longer an appropriate response to the Covid-19 crisis.
The padlocks don't need to stay on the gates of every GAA pitch in the country, but they do need to remain on some.
So, "designated walking tracks" can open on Monday week, provided the government presses ahead with the second phase of its exit from lockdown, and provided a "facilities management plan" satisfies Croke Park officials. These are two provisos that were not required.
As the country's greatest community organisation, the GAA is in a unique position to show the kind of initiative, and strength, that's needed at this time, just as it did in its initial response to the threat posed by the virus by promptly shutting down all activity. The GAA is trusted and reliable. It is a socialist movement centred on the wellbeing of people, and not on profit, and people will take great comfort in a show of real leadership.
There seems to have been a gradual shift in the public mood in recent weeks. And it's not just a restlessness brought about by this spell of good weather. Because, depending on what part of Ireland you live in, your experience of this crisis is different - or at least it is changing. As is the biting reality of the economic hardship this country is facing on the other side of all this.
In the dark days of the last recession, the GAA played its part in the national recovery. By binding communities together, it helped push back against despair and desperation in many parts of the country that were wiped out by the crash. There were times in small towns and villages when the floodlights from the local GAA pitch were a ray of hope. We don't need floodlights now, not as the longest day of the year approaches, but we do need hope.
A big part of the recovery will have to be about spreading confidence in society again - showing not just by word but by deed that it's time to move on. Sport can be central to this. And this does not mean a quick return to the big sporting events - welcome as that would be - but more about what's happening on the ground, what people can see in their own environment, and what is part of their every-day lives.
So long as social distancing remains at two metres, the GAA's hands are tied, said its president John Horan in recent days. This, he said, "is a big hurdle for us to bring back contact sport". But it's not just about contact sport, not so far as the GAA's role in society is concerned.
A chain reaction of grounds re-opening across a period of weeks - or longer if needed - will be the sort of act that will garner public support. People will respond accordingly; they will feel more positive. Clubs will respond too. No-one need fear that clubs cannot be trusted. Once a club is told it can allow people to use its walking track, you can be sure people will come together to devise a system in each community to allow the facility to be used safely. Anyone who has ever been at an event organised by any club will know that they can be trusted to do it right. And what's wrong with trusting communities to police themselves? We all want to be safe, right?
On Friday, there were just 35 new cases of Covid-19. As of midnight on Wednesday last, there had only been 83 cases of the virus recorded in Co Leitrim. There are 24 clubs in the county. There is no reason why GAA grounds should not already be open and available to the local community, and marshalled by that community. In a safe setting, people could walk or jog laps of the field, or the walking track where there is one. There is no need to open the clubhouse.
There is no need for a facilities management plan; there is no need to wait for the government. Hundreds of clubs are ready to go now - give them the green light.
There are several other counties where the impact of the virus has not been as great. In Sligo, the last confirmed case was on May 14; in Kerry it was on May 17; in Donegal it was on May 19. Yes, there are plenty of areas where it would not be such a good idea to open up yet, as frustrating as that might be. But there is nothing wrong with a step-by-step approach.
Many public parks are now open. I sat in one near my home on Friday morning and although there were plenty of people around, everybody kept their distance.
I know in my area that if the gates of the GAA pitch were open to locals it would be a huge psychological boost. It would be seen for what it is: a small but important step on the road to recovery. We all need confidence in the world around us again.
There's another important point to consider, one which particularly applies in rural Ireland: Every day the gates remain shut, the GAA's connection with the local community becomes more strained. Sure, some of the work being done by clubs to deliver supplies to the vulnerable and so on is another example of what is really meant by being at the heart of the community, but the locked gates are a powerful message. Where once the message to everyone was clear - stay home, stay safe - that's no longer the case for many.
Clubs are, naturally, struggling financially, but it's not even about money at the moment. If you ask club chairpersons what the number one reason for re-opening their facilities is, few will mention money. They will, instead, talk about the importance of those facilities to the wellbeing of their community.
GAA clubs are a great barometer of the local temperature. It's time to trust them to do what they do best - look after their community.