Sunday 15 December 2019

Joe Brolly: The GAA is more important than money - For everything else, there’s Mastercard

Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

At half-time last Sunday in Celtic Park, the tearoom was filled with familiar faces. I love that familiarity of the GAA. We are, as I once remarked to then First Minister Peter Robinson, like the Masons without the funny handshake. Only much bigger.

Joe junior chatted and ate chocolate eclairs with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who rarely misses a match and lives in a small council house just behind the stadium.

“Did you ever play football?”

“I did other things in my spare time son.”

It brought to mind Martin’s graveside oration at Barney McFadden’s funeral. Barney was a great Gael and community man, who lived in the Gasworks House in the Bogside. He was the sacristan at Saint Eugene’s Cathedral and worked tirelessly, as he put it, “to keep the young boys out of bother” in a very deprived area of the city. The last thing he did the night he suddenly died was to stick Derry’s National League fixtures to his fridge with a magnet.

For his funeral, the graveyard was a sea of bomber jackets. Martin told this story: He had been involved in “a bit of a scuffle with the security forces” and himself and the lads with him had to make a run for it. It was the dead of night but he knew if he could get to McFadden’s house he would find sanctuary. He sprinted to Barney’s front door and banged it. The house was in darkness. He shouted up to the bedroom window, “Mr McFadden, Mr McFadden.” The window opened and Barney, in his pyjamas, shouted down, “Who is it?” “It’s Martin McGuinness, I need help.”

“Indeed and I will not help you” said Barney, “didn’t I get you a trial for the Derry minors and you didn’t turn up.”

In the tearoom, my father and I chatted with one of the Mahons, who told a story about getting Brian Mullins’s shirt off him after an All-Ireland semi-final against Derry in the ’70s. Years later he bumped into Mullins at a club function in Carndonagh and Mullins asked for it back. “He was deadly serious. I just told him I’d lost it. He wasn’t wan bit happy.”

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One of the stewards, big Pearse McGonigle, hit me with his customary friendly slap on the back, knocking me forward a yard or two. Pearse has stood on the gate at O’Cathain Park in Dungiven for years, collecting the admission fee, smiling and helping out with whatever needs doing. At long last he has been brought into the county set-up. His brother Mickey, a close friend of mine since boyhood, has been the chairman of the hurling club in the town and like Pearse, helps out without question. When they did up the lounge in the clubhouse over a decade ago, Mickey was one of the volunteer tradesmen who worked round the clock to get it ready. I gave the opening talk. Being a celebrity is easy. Others do the work. I get the credit.

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A few months ago, I was chatting to the great Dave Hickey, the father of the organ donation system in Ireland and a man who has given his life to others. He had been offered a hugely lucrative job in the Middle East. He said: “I’d go if it wasn’t for the football. The GAA is the only thing worth staying for in this kip. The rest has gone to hell.”

What he meant is that in a winner takes all world where we are little more than commercial units, and where the question is ‘What’s in it for me?’ the GAA gives us identity and a sense of community. Silicon Valley billionaire Paul Graham (described by Forbes as America’s “most influential thinker”) summed up the prevailing philosophy in a landmark essay at the turn of the year where he boasted, “I have become an expert on how to increase economic inequality, and I’ve spent the last decade working hard on perfecting it.” Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (“Greed is good”) isn’t the bogeyman for modern society. He’s the role model.

I am privileged to be Cystic Fibrosis Ireland’s ambassador. Over the last decade the average age for people with CF has gone from 21 to 27, almost entirely because of tireless community activism by CF families and supporters. Martina Jennings is the unpaid chief of CF West. She is a true GAA woman immersed in community and club life. I have worked with her and her large volunteer team as they have transformed the lives of CF sufferers in the West. To give one example: the new state of the art CF clinic which was opened in Castlebar a fortnight ago cost €1.3m. Martina and her team raised €1m of that. She has a full-time job, like all the volunteers (nearly all of whom are GAA folk) and spends every spare minute she has working for the greater good. The least those Mayo men could do for her is to win that bloody All-Ireland.

Seven similar CF clinics have opened all over the country in the last five years. Over 90 per cent of that funding has come from the volunteer CF groups around the country. So far, so good.

Cystic fibrosis — until now — has been a virtual death sentence. The only cure in most cases is a double lung transplant, but the CF gene is still there and the disease will return. Now, however, a pharmaceutical company called Vertex has come up with a drug that treats the underlying cause of the disease. Orkambi will give long lives to around 50 per cent of sufferers. Only they have priced this life saving drug at €230,000 per patient per annum. Five hundred Irish people can be saved, but at a cost of €115m per annum.

So, it isn’t available yet because the HSE is desperately trying to negotiate some sort of discount and find a way of paying. The killer is that the Cystic Fibrosis foundation contributed $1 billion towards its development, but failed to do a deal that would give them some leverage over pricing. As usual, the good guys got screwed.

When Orkambi won drug of the year at the Bio Pharma Oscars, Vertex CEO Dan Leiden was cheered to the rafters. Last year, his pay packet was $45.6m. As he was receiving his standing ovation, kids in Mayo and Dublin were suffocating to death. 

Last week on Capitol Hill, the window-dressing senate hearings into the exorbitant pricing by Pharma companies of life saving drugs continued with the interrogation of Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceutical. He was asked about a 62-year-old drug Daraprim which his company bought, then hiked the price of by 5,000 per cent, from $13 per tablet to $750. He took the fifth and smirked. Afterwards he tweeted that the senators who questioned him were “imbeciles”. Go Martin, Go!

Meanwhile, Valeant CEO Howard Schiller tried to explain why the company decided to increase the prices of two essential life saving cardiac drugs by 525 percent and 212 percent respectively and humoured them with a half-hour of gobbledegook. He was whisked away afterwards in his private chopper. The truth is nobody really cares. It is the American, UK and increasingly the Irish way. Greed is good.

We are not immune. County players are increasingly viewing themselves as commercial units, who will do you a favour if you pay a large fee and give their sponsor a mention or take a pic of them wearing their sponsored new gear.

Standing against the capitalist onslaught isn’t easy. Now, more than ever, the GAA hierarchy must hold the line. Because without the GAA, we will become just like America.

The GAA is more important than money. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

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