Sunday 18 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Government meddling in sport should sound alarm'

The GAA came under fire for intially refusing permission for the Liam Miller tribute match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year. Photo: Sportsfile
The GAA came under fire for intially refusing permission for the Liam Miller tribute match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

This week last year, Minister for Sport Shane Ross was lecturing the GAA on his version of their responsibilities over the use of grounds.

He had waded into the controversy which erupted when the GAA initially refused permission for the Liam Miller tribute soccer match to be played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

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"It is vital that public money that is given to people, in this situation Páirc Uí Chaoimh, should also ensure that the body that receives the money shares those facilities with the community," he said. Put simply, he was effectively ordering the GAA to open up its grounds to rugby and soccer. Why? Because he said so.

Over the last week, Ross has been lecturing the FAI, telling them who can, and cannot, run for leadership positions. Specifically, he wants Donal Conway to withdraw his nomination for president of the embattled organisation Why? Because he says so.

What next? A threat to cut IRFU funding if Joe Schmidt omits some player who lives in the Minister's constituency from Ireland's World Cup squad?

Sporting organisations tend to operate in isolation, running their own affairs without reference to each other.

Shane Ross has turned his attention to the FAI. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Ross has turned his attention to the FAI. Photo: Sportsfile

They can be somewhat self-righteous too. And while they don't openly gloat when a rival becomes embroiled in a controversy, there's always a tendency to snigger quietly: "Well, that would never happen to us - we're smarter than that."

Extricate

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Don't tell me some people in the rugby and soccer fraternities weren't entertained by watching the GAA squirm as they tried to extricate themselves from the mess they had foolishly walked into over the Miller game last year. And I'm sure there are people in the GAA and IRFU now looking aghast at the FAI and all its chaos.

They shouldn't, no more than others should have enjoyed the GAA's discomfort this time last year.

Declan Bonner. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Bonner. Photo: Sportsfile

In both the GAA and FAI cases, the real issue is how Government interference has applied in a manner which would have been unheard of in the past.

A year ago, it was the Government, through Ross, telling the GAA that future funding for facility development projects could be contingent on them being opened up to other sports.

Now it's the Government - again through the ubiquitous Ross - attempting to interfere in the FAI's leadership selection process.

Apparently, Sport Ireland, the insufferably smug, expensively-funded quango, agree with him. Now there's a surprise.

In the case of both the GAA and FAI, interference in their affairs is predicated on the view that since they are in receipt of public money, the Government is entitled to throw its weight about.

Yes, of course, organisations receiving State support have to be accountable but the line is now being crossed.

If future GAA funding comes with the condition that all grounds are open to other sports, it will have a massive impact, not least because the majority of pitches are overused as it is.

Also, it's a condition that can't be reciprocated, since rugby and soccer grounds are too small for football and hurling. Does Ross know that?

"I am not aware of any other sporting organisation being assessed (for funding) on the degree to which it promotes rival sports," said GAA director-general Tom Ryan earlier this year.

As for the running of organisations, the Government is well within its rights to ensure everything is in order, but when they try to extend it to stating who can run for positions, the sporting world needs to wake up to the dangers of such blatant political interference. Hiding behind the high-minded claim that it's down solely to a need to protect the public interest doesn't wash.

The public paid billions to bail out the banks, but what have the Government done to protect customers from interest-rate gouging, not to mention the tracker mortgage scandal?

Meddling in sport is much easier -hence the rush to do it. Besides, if the Government and Sport Ireland were so concerned over what was going on in the FAI, why take no action until the media highlighted it?

And if they thought the GAA's attitude to the use of grounds needed challenging, why wait until the Liam Miller affair blew up? It's either an issue all the time or it's not.

There has been more political interference in sport over the last 12 months than at any time I can remember, yet it's going largely unchallenged.

It's a mistake the sporting world will come to regret if they don't call a halt.

Whatever you say, say nothing is becoming the standard line

Not publicly updating the injury situation started in rugby and has now spread to GAA. "I'm not going to talk about injury, sorry," was the reply of Declan Bonner when quizzed on Donegal's wounded count last Sunday.

Munster rugby adopted that line when Conor Murray was out for a lengthy period, explaining that the player wanted confidentiality. That, of course, merely led to wild speculation.

It seems we're going to get more of the silent treatment in GAA, with player confidentiality cited as the reason. Of course, it could all be down to managers, many of whom would prefer if jerseys didn't have to be numbered, let alone any other information released.

We see the nonsense all the time as teams are announced on Fridays, only to have several changes by Sunday.

Why the charade? Why bother with announcements and then make changes? Rugby might have introduced the injury confidentiality line but at least when a team is announced there are usually no changes without good reason.

Young Tribesmen should go east

Here's a tale of two minor hurling teams in the  All-Ireland semi-finals. When Kilkenny play Limerick on Saturday, it will be their eighth game, having begun the Leinster Championship in April.

When Galway play Wexford on Sunday, it will be only their third game, having entered the championship on July 15 in a round-robin with Kilkenny and Clare, beaten in finals in Leinster and Munster respectively.

Galway won both to take a place in the semi-finals. It defies logic that one team has five games in a championship before another one plays its first nearly three months later.

There is, of course, a simple solution. Galway seniors have been in the Leinster Championship for ten years and the U-20s are there now too. So why not the minors?

Mind you, Galway's lack of exposure to a provincial championship hasn't hampered them. They have won 13, drawn one and lost one (v Tipperary in 2016) of their last 15 games, winning All-Ireland titles in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

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