Monday 24 June 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Pairc Ui Chaoimh mess leaves many unanswered questions'

Frank Murphy is ending his 46-year spell as Cork county secretary when he steps down tonight. Photo: Sportsfile
Frank Murphy is ending his 46-year spell as Cork county secretary when he steps down tonight. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's not how Frank Murphy intended his 46 years as Cork county secretary to end. The tributes to him will roll at tonight's county convention, but once the nostalgia tour ends attention will quickly turn to the stark and embarrassing reality that Pairc Ui Chaoimh is a financial basket case.

As Cork's chief administrator and a key figure in the redevelopment, Murphy has questions to answer but he's not the only one.

Everyone else associated with the project in the Cork county board, Munster Council and Croke Park are in the firing line too after it was finally admitted that the cost of the redevelopment could be 40 per cent over initial budget.

It started at €80m and was increased to €86m last year but is now heading for €110m - an overrun that makes a mockery of the original projections.

There is nothing unusual about costs running above budget - it happened with Croke Park - for major developments but Pairc Ui Chaoimh has surely set a record for underestimates.

And if that weren't bad enough, it has also emerged that the pitch will have to be relaid. The 'old' pitch always had problems, especially in front of the stand, so why weren't they properly addressed as part of the re-build?

We were repeatedly told that all the necessary expertise was engaged to ensure that the new pitch would be at the top end of the scale, but it became clear pretty quickly that wasn't going to be the case.

Now it's back to square one. A new pitch is required, work that probably cannot be undertaken until 2020.

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Sub-standard

Presumably, that means a sub-standard surface next year, which will be a very public manifestation of the chaos lurking behind the spanking new stadium.

Croke Park personnel will run Pairc Ui Chaoimh for the foreseeable future, applying all the expertise accumulated from their own stadium in an attempt to turn things around.

It will be a slow and costly exercise, which has to have a negative impact on other GAA activities.

The scale of the problem is clear, but solutions are less obvious, which is why the GAA centrally are effectively bailing out Cork in the short to medium term.

This is seriously embarrassing for the Cork county board and the stadium project team but that will the least of anybody's concerns.

Indeed, initial surprise at the extent of the overrun will give way to anger when the impact of adding such an enormous debt to the GAA's overall balance sheet becomes apparent. The questions 'why' and 'who knew' need to be answered.

In November 2016, Cork hosted a media day to show off the new stadium, which had a completion date of summer 2017.

Once we were taken on a tour of the ground, a slick financial presentation followed, which left the clear impression that everything was on target.

Anything negative was dismissed as small irritants, which were to be expected in a project of that scale.

The project had already received €30m from Government, €20m from the GAA's Central Council, €3.75m from the Munster Council, while Cork put in €10m from their own resources.

A ten-year premium ticket package (€6,500 each) was being launched with a target of €13m while it was also announced that naming rights for the stadium would be sold.

We were told that there were quite a few interested parties but two years on no deal has been struck.

Working off the original estimated cost of €80m, it appeared that the stadium would be virtually debt-free when it opened. That was very much the positive message being spun by the various speakers.

Reality

Of course, the reality was different. Behind the scenes, costs were rocketing and while the deadline for re-opening the stadium which had been closed since summer 2014 was met (last year's Clare v Tipperary and Waterford v Wexford hurling quarter-finals were the first big games there) reports of budget overruns became more frequent late last year.

They continued this year, until breaking point was reached when it became abundantly clear that Cork were in over their heads and were in need of an urgent intervention by Croke Park.

Since the Government contributed €30m - a generous figure which by was probably influenced Pairc Ui Chaoimh's importance to Ireland's failed bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup - it's likely that the Public Accounts Committee will want to know why the projected costs proved so far wide of the mark.

Was the initial estimate of €80m for the 45,000-capacity stadium too low or was it a case of cost control mechanisms failing during the redevelopment work? Either way, it's an indictment of those directly involved in the planning and oversight process.

And what of Croke Park's role? Central Council approved a €20 million grant but was it accompanied by supervisory procedures?

If - as has happened - costs spiralled out of control and Cork were unable to manage them, responsibility to intervene was always going to fall on Croke Park. Did HQ place too much trust in Cork's ability to run such a vast redevelopment programme?

Clearly, they weren't up to it and have now not only embarrassed themselves but also left the GAA with a problem that will probably take at least a decade to sort out.

Irish Independent

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