Tuesday 21 January 2020

Martin Breheny: Páirc Uí Chaoimh saga may be over but GAA won’t forget how Minister Ross jumped on the bandwagon

'Mr Ross, citing the use of public money, was happy to interfere on this occasion, but refused to become involved in various transport disputes in the past on the basis that it would be inappropriate.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Mr Ross, citing the use of public money, was happy to interfere on this occasion, but refused to become involved in various transport disputes in the past on the basis that it would be inappropriate.' Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The Páirc Uí Chaoimh controversy is over but the implications have a long way to run yet. Indeed, they are quite profound for the GAA and there is a wider dimension too.

We now know that the Government - supported by the opposition - can ride roughshod over anything that comes in front of them on their march to a populist beat.

Well, anything not in a position to resist, that is. As for the tougher challenges, they continue to be avoided.

Lest there by any doubt, the GAA's decision to backtrack on their insistence that the rules did not allow the Liam Miller tribute match to be played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was made because of enormous political pressure.

Phone calls to Croke Park were the private manifestation of the strong-arm tactics, while the public campaign conducted by a string of Ministers and opposition TDs ensured that the controversy stayed high on an agenda which is pretty barren at a time when TDs are all on long holidays from the Dáil.

First, let's deal with what the U-turn means for the GAA. Their rules on the use of grounds read the same today as they did last week but, in real terms, there's a vast difference.

Prior to last Saturday, only Croke Park could be made available for non-GAA sports under any circumstances. It was an unnecessarily inflexible approach but the mandate for it was overwhelming, having received 77 per cent support at annual Congress 2016.

The vote was on a motion from Clare that Central Council, as opposed to Congress, be given the same powers for county grounds as they have for Croke Park.

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Because the Clare motion only got 23 per cent support, it could not be re-submitted for the following three years, leaving 2020 as the next possible time it could come into consideration.

If the Clare proposal had been accepted, it would have been much easier for the GAA to deal with the Páirc Uí Chaoimh issue in a pragmatic manner. Given the special circumstances, they could have opened the ground and few would have objected.

Instead, they became ensnared by a rule - or rather the interpretation of a rule - which appeared to allow no leeway.

Obviously, that rule will have to be amended at next year's Congress, as events of the last week made it utterly redundant.

That's very significant in the sense that a Congress decision has been proven to be non-binding. In the case of Rule 5, which deals with the use of property, that may be no bad thing, but has it set a precedent for other regulations?

On a broader front, the fall-out from the Páirc Uí Chaoimh controversy stretches well beyond the GAA. It's worrying for everybody as it shows that the Government is prepared to meddle in areas where it should not be involved. Plus, it appears to believe it can change its own rules - and others - as they go along if it suits the agenda.

A central tenet of the argument put forward by Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, and junior Minister, Brendan Griffin, for forcing the GAA to relent on Páirc Uí Chaoimh was that the €30 million Government grant was made on the basis that the facility would be made available for broad community activity.

Was that written into the agreement? Surely Government officials knew the GAA rules on use of grounds and would have demanded a change at the time. As for the GAA, they would have spotted the implications of such a condition and addressed it.

Could it be a case of retrospective decision-making by Government? Mr Ross and Mr Griffin pointed out that future investment would be dependent on grounds being available to all sports but it also appears that they want to apply it retrospectively, which the GAA simply cannot accept.

The threatening tone of the Government's approach - best articulated by Mr Ross - has to be of concern to everybody, even those who were delighted by the GAA's discomfort on the Páirc Uí Chaoimh issue.

Mr Ross - citing the use of public money - was happy to interfere on this occasion, but refused to become involved in various transport disputes in the past on the basis that it would be inappropriate. Confused? Me too.

Backed by a tornado of social media 'influencing', the political classes spotted an opportunity to look strong and decisive last week. And with such a sensitive issue as a fundraiser for a significant sporting figure as the backdrop to the whole affair, they felt they couldn't lose.

So they took to issuing instructions to the GAA, while threatening that if they didn't get their way there would be no more funding in future.

Contrast that with their gutless response to the bailed-out banks, who continue to charge mortgage holders the highest interest rates in Europe. There are no Government threats, or even public admonishments, but rather a craven acceptance that nothing can be done about it.

The last ten days have been informative on a variety of fronts.

For the GAA, it's a lesson on the dangers allowing bad rules to sit on their books, ones which will presumably be heeded and acted upon. Basically, the rule book needs to be completely overhauled, not just on the use of grounds, but across many other areas of operation too.

At a more important level, the unfortunate saga showed a nasty side of the political classes, which should be of concern to everybody.

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