Sunday 20 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Coping with Brexit blues will not be easy for GAA'

Travel restrictions at the border could lead to smaller crowds for games north and south

Donegal fans had to cross the border twice to make last year’s Ulster SFC final in Clones – a journey which will be hampered by a no-deal Brexit, Joe Kernan and Tom Ryan have warned. Photo: Sportsfile
Donegal fans had to cross the border twice to make last year’s Ulster SFC final in Clones – a journey which will be hampered by a no-deal Brexit, Joe Kernan and Tom Ryan have warned. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Donegal supporters, who left Ballybofey early enough to avoid match-day traffic heading for last year's Ulster final, were in Clones one hour and 45 minutes later.

If Declan Bonner's squad reach another final this year and the same group take to the road early, they will arrive in Clones at... well, who knows?

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Two border crossings in and out of a non-EU state on a single journey will be as time-consuming as circumstances dictate in a Brexit scenario.

And since nobody has the remotest idea of how anything will work out in practice if a no-deal Brexit crashes onto the scene, something as peripheral as the duration of a journey to a GAA game isn't exactly a priority on the official agenda.

However, it's very important to the GAA, as indeed are many other real concerns, including the economic and social impact on both sides of the border.

"As a body which is based, indeed embedded, in both parts of the island, the GAA nationally and locally is at risk. At national level, and in selected counties, we have income streams and costs denominated in both euro and sterling," said GAA director-general Tom Ryan.

Tom Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile
Tom Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

"Currency fluctuations are always a concern and the worry is that Brexit will exacerbate things. Income of all types and at all levels of the GAA are linked to the fortunes of the economy at large - be that fundraising, availability of bank borrowings to counties or national sponsorship."

It's a view echoed by former GAA president Peter Quinn, who believes that if agriculture is hit as badly as anticipated, it will severely hit the GAA.

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"Brexit has the potential to damage significant parts of rural Ireland, its clubs, the players who represent them and sustain those communities," he said recently.

For now, though, the biggest fear revolves around potential travelling difficulties if restrictions are put in place at the border. Ulster Council CEO Brian McAvoy describes Brexit as "potentially one of the greatest challenges that the Association is likely to face in the coming years".

Joe Kernan. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Kernan. Photo: Sportsfile

It has already sparked financial issues, with a weaker sterling increasing costs for supporters from the Six Counties travelling to games south of the border.

Before the Brexit referendum, €20 equalled around £14 sterling but it's now around £17.50. Euro is the official GAA currency, so an All-Ireland final stand ticket will, based on current conversion rates, cost the equivalent of £78, compared to £63 three years ago. McAvoy suspects that a weaker sterling may have reduced attendances at some games last year.

"It has undoubtedly increased running costs for clubs and counties in the North," said.

Travel remains the main practical issue, amid fears that some form of checking will take place at the border.

A no-deal Brexit would virtually guarantee a hard border and that is something that must be avoided. Even though a Common Travel Area was in place, there are many among us who will remember border queues and custom checks prior to Britain and Ireland joining what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973.

"In more recent times, we are all too familiar with different types of border-checks - and more long queues. This is something no wants to return to," said McAvoy.

Joe Kernan is horrified at the prospects of any form of checkpoints that might arise as a result of Brexit.

"It would be bad for people in every walk of life and would definitely be bad for the GAA.

"There's so much going on between clubs and counties north and south that anything that disrupted it would be very damaging.

"Your time isn't your own if you don't know how long you have to allow to go from A to B. We remember it well enough from the bad old days and we don't want a return to it any form. If crossing the border became hard work, it might well reduce the number of people travelling to games. Now that would be serious," he said.

Uncertainty

The uncertainty of what lies ahead makes planning virtually impossible, which is adding to the fears that the GAA, which has more cross-border activity than any other sport, will be badly hit.

"The most profound threat posed to us by a disorderly decoupling of Britain is social. The effective operation of countless clubs in the border region, and countless communities in which those clubs are based, is our primary concern. We absolutely need free movement of our members and supporters," said Ryan.

"As an organisation that suffered more than most when times were bad, and has contributed to more than most to the social fabric of a better Ireland since then, our well-being and that of our members must be protected by ourselves and by our political leaders."

Nonetheless, it seems certain the Brexit issues will discommode the GAA to a large degree. Even if free movement continues, the economic fallout will resonate through the Association, putting most strain on the Six Counties and their clubs.

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