Friday 22 November 2019

Quinn: Brexit will seriously damage rural clubs in the Six Counties

Former GAA President Peter Quinn. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Former GAA President Peter Quinn. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Every year one billion litres of Northern Irish-produced milk is sent south for processing because there isn't the capacity to carry out that function in the Six Counties.

The relevance of such a fact is wrapped up in the consequences of Brexit and, by extension, its impact on the GAA as outlined by former president Peter Quinn in an address to a Club Tyrone gathering this week, where the UK's move to disentangle itself from the European Union was discussed.

Quinn's background is in economics and pragmatism always couched his words.

In stripping back the layers, he got to the heart of where he wanted to go. In the likely event of a 'hard' border being restored, something he sees as inevitable, the logistics of such transportation in a reconfigured Customs Union would be seriously compromised.

To build the same processing capacity in Northern Ireland would cost €100m. But that, he pointed out, is more than the entire income from farming in the same constituency, excluding grants, from 2016. There may be ways around the processing issue, he admitted, but there will be limits.

"I have a concern about the future of Irish agriculture," he warned. "And I would be worried about the dairy industry in the North."

And if agriculture faces such a threat then the GAA, inevitably, can scarcely avoid the trickle-down.

"The GAA has always had a huge rural and agricultural constituency," Quinn pointed out. "The farming community is crucial to our clubs, not just those in border areas but right across this entire island. If they suffer, our rural clubs will suffer too.

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"It is probably too early to be sure, but clearly Brexit has the potential to damage significant parts of rural Ireland, its clubs, the players who represent them and sustain those communities because of the impact it will have on the viability of the rural economy.

His assessment struck a sombre note for Northern Ireland and, consequently, the GAA.

"It would be far, far better for the GAA in Ulster and nationally if Brexit did not occur," he said.

The economics of it lead to stark conclusions. Brexit will inevitably lead to formal or informal devaluation of sterling, he cautioned, and with that comes the certainty of big inflation.

For the GAA, that will mean higher running costs, a squeeze on big investments, higher admission costs for Ulster Championship matches, potential emigration as unemployment kicks in and a growing chasm between units North and south.

Quinn says inflation is already evident pointing to rises in the last four months; 1.2pc in November, 1.6pc in December, 1.8pc in January, 2.3pc in February.

"You don't need a ruler to project what it's going to be like in a couple of years' time," he said. "They are the highest monthly increases in several years. And it's going to continue. In my view, until it reaches double-digits at least. And I think that's a conservative estimate."

Quinn recalled the impact of the oil crisis and how it knocked 24 cent off every pound, and he can't see anything different now when the process is completed in two years' time.

"The cost of running teams and county boards will rise," he said. "But the only question will be, 'how much?' Followed in the case of the GAA, by 'how will an amateur organisation fund the rises?'."

Behind rampant inflation will be unemployment as competitiveness is lost, with emigration back in focus.

"In my view we run the risk of seeing that again in this part of Ireland," said the Fermanagh-based economist.

"Fortunately it will be much less likely in the Republic, which will be operating with a different currency. Brexit may have some effects there, but they will be on a much lower scale than what will apply in the North.

"While devaluation and inflation are virtual certainties, emigration is somewhere between possible and probable. If I was betting my money, it would be on a noticeable increase.

"For an organisation like the GAA, whose primary focus is on youth and on providing social, cultural and sporting activities and proving outlets for young people, Brexit raises the whole issue of investment in job creation."

Quinn smarted at the notion of electronic devices tracking movement across the hundreds of roads that link North and south.

"Forget all the rubbish of a soft border within the island of Ireland that Mrs May or Mr Brokenshire (NI secretary) think possible," he said.

"They haven't a clue what's likely to happen. To quote Mrs May, 'Brexit means Brexit'. Converted to what that means for people in our area, Brexit means a hard border.

"What boundary between any member country of the newly configured EU and a country which is no longer a member will involve a soft border? It won't. It's cloud cuckoo land stuff.

"We lived with it but we got used to not having to worry about that and there is going to be a culture shock if there is a hard border."

For the GAA, surviving Brexit will involve similar remedies to what worked from 1974 to '78, Quinn suggested.

"Admission prices will have to go up," he said. "That's inevitable, whether those in Dublin will see things that way or not. Secondly, and crucially, costs will have to be cut. In inflationary conditions, those who refuse to cut costs rarely survive unless they have an unique product. We in the GAA have a product that is pretty unique.

"The modern GAA is top-heavy from a cost perspective. And that is creating spending commitments, some of which may have to be broken.

"Thirdly we'll have to be very circumspect about investing. In my opinion it may be time to start shelving some investment proposals. If you want to build Casement Park, whether that's wise or unwise is a matter of opinion. Those issues will affect clubs and counties in the Six Counties and our units in Britain while having very little impact on most of the rest of Ireland. That imbalance has to be a major concern."

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