Friday 23 February 2018

Bitter aftertaste takes from Cork's historic schools finals

Board's dealings with popular Sciath na Scol have left many baffled

Munster Chief Executive Garrett Fitzgerald
Munster Chief Executive Garrett Fitzgerald
John Greene

John Greene

'The county board's handling of concerns in a transparent, considered fashion has often been anathema to what should be perceived as best practice. Indeed, their treatment of Cork Sciath na Scol early this summer left much to be desired. That's a story for another day though.' - - John Allen, The Irish Times, July 31

In the last week of May, an historic event occurred in Cork city when Musgrave Park - now known as Irish Independent Park - hosted Gaelic games for the first time. The occasion was the primary schools finals in hurling and camogie, known locally as Sciath na Scol.

It was, by all accounts, a runaway success. Over three days, 94 busloads of children - over 10,000 spectators - watched the 12 finals.

Munster Rugby was thrilled to host the games. Chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald said in the build-up that he was "delighted that Munster and Sciath na Scol can work in tandem in hosting what I know will be another successful and enjoyable event for students, teachers and fans". Given the co-operation which will be needed between the IRFU and the GAA if Ireland is to successfully bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, this was, rightly, seen as a positive development.

Yet a very different picture of what went on behind the scenes in the days leading up to the finals is emerging. Organisers have accused Cork County Board of seeking to prevent it from going ahead.

The Sciath na Scol festivals are a well-established fixture in the Cork GAA calendar, so much so that they are included in the county's football and hurling masterplan. The hurling and camogie finals take place in May and the boys and girls football finals in November. Traditionally, they are played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Páirc Uí Rinn but, with the former now out of commission, the plan had been to use the latter. In April, however, the board informed the organising committee that Páirc Uí Rinn was not available and the search began for alternative venues.

A spokesperson for the board said on Friday it had offered to "sit down and talk to make other arrangements" but the organisers say they failed to take heed of the specific needs of schools finals. Because of the large number of children who attend across the week of games, venues must have a covered stand (on one day, the stand at another of the venues, Cork IT, which holds 1,100, was full), easily accessible toilets, bus parking, wheelchair access and a closed area in which large numbers of children can be supervised. In other words, open grounds and grassy banks are neither safe nor suitable.

Three venues subsequently emerged as being available, and suitable, and were chosen: Nemo Rangers, CIT and Irish Independent Park.

In a statement distributed to Cork clubs on June 15, the organisers say that five days before the finals they were instructed not to use Irish Independent Park during a meeting with board officials. In the course of that meeting, which one teacher present described last week as "intimidating", the issue of insurance was raised. The teacher said it was made clear that games in Irish Independent Park would not be covered.

Sciath na Scol subsequently experienced difficulty in providing Munster Rugby with the required letter of indemnity from the GAA. The organisers say they tried several sources, including Croke Park, but could not get the letter. Sciath na Scol signed a contract to lease the ground for three days but the finals could not proceed with out proof of indemnity. The first finals were due to be played on Monday, May 25 and, on the Friday morning, with time running out, the organisers decided to buy their own insurance. They also had to buy portable juvenile goalposts as they could not get a set anywhere, and organise a scoreboard.

"The joke is there was a report in the Evening Echo that same Thursday stating that the newly refurbished Páirc Uí Chaoimh would be open to the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid," said one teacher last week.

A spokesperson for the board told the Sunday Independent on Friday that the committee had entered into a "commercial contract" with Munster Rugby and that insurance "wouldn't automatically extend to third-party premises like Irish Independent Park, but that was overcome with the extra policy taken out".

But at the monthly county board meeting in June, Sciath na Scol's delegate Liam Weir accused the board of "chicanery and skulduggery" on this issue.

The Irish Examiner reported: "[Chairman Ger] Lane made the clarification that Sciath na Scol had been told insurance wouldn't be extended rather than it being cancelled, and asked that the remarks be withdrawn. Weir refused to do so, saying that Sciath na Scol committee members had been 'abused, threatened, intimidated and insulted' at a meeting with top Cork officials the previous week."

A copy of the GAA's insurance certificate, dated November 14, 2014, appears to contradict the board's interpretation. It states that the GAA, which it says includes the national schools body Cumann na mBunscol, "have a Public Liability and Employer's Liability Insurance Policy which includes the Association's property and premises, including such other properties and premises as are leased, rented, hired or loaned to the Insured".

On the day in which the organisers secured their own insurance, an offer came from the board to host three of the finals in Páirc Uí Rinn, but with plans already in place and schools closed because of the referendum, it was too late.

Teachers involved in organising Sciath na Scol are baffled at the board's stance. An egm was called to discuss the matter in June and over 130 teachers attended, and demanded that the board be challenged. The controversy is expected to be raised again at this week's board meeting.

It is all the more puzzling because relations between the board and Sciath na Scol were always excellent. The teachers' body acknowledges that it has always received great support in Cork. The board not alone provides grant assistance but also makes an office (ironically in Páirc Uí Rinn) and a part-time administrator available to Sciath na Scol. "It has been a mutually beneficial arrangement," said a teacher last week.

In the end, all three venues turned up trumps and Irish Independent Park, with its easy access for buses in particular, was a huge hit with teachers, parents and children. The Munster Rugby branch emerge with a great deal of credit for the way in which it welcomed thousands of primary school children into its stadium. Can the same be said about Cork County Board?

Sciath na Scol hopes it can rebuild its relationship with the board so that Páirc Uí Rinn can be used for the next festival of finals, in November, but that, as they say, is a story for another day.

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