Saturday 21 September 2019

'Wipe out the GAA and what sporting facilities are left?' - GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail

GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail, speaking from Perth, believes the association should ‘always get State assistance to upgrade’ their grounds. Photo: Sportsfile
GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail, speaking from Perth, believes the association should ‘always get State assistance to upgrade’ their grounds. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It has been a strange week for the GAA. A big decision was being taken elsewhere, one which would have a significant impact on them, yet they had no way of exerting any influence.

The IRFU had asked them for the 'use of the hall' to underpin the 2023 rugby World Cup bid and now all they could do was wait to discover if their grounds would rock to the thud of the oval ball in six years' time.

The GAA stood to gain across a range of fronts if the IRFU's bid succeeded.

They had already banked a whole lot of goodwill by making their grounds available, but the real benefit was to come when the huge financial overlay associated with one of world's biggest sporting events was applied to the selected venues.

It was a straightforward deal between the GAA and IRFU.

When it was all over, the GAA would have upgraded grounds and a wedge of money in the bank. Winners alright. And then came last Wednesday. Shock and horror, the illogical optimism over Ireland's rugby bid proved hopelessly ill-founded. World Cup 2023 was going to France.

Positive

Only time will tell what impact that will have on the GAA but it won't be positive. They will have to rethink their stadium strategy and face the challenge of finding the finance to do so. But where?

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Will the Government, who ultimately would have paid for the upgrades required for the World Cup, be as supportive now that circumstances have changed?

GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail believes they will, but he can't be sure.

"I would argue that we should always get State assistance to upgrade our grounds. If you took GAA facilities out of Ireland, there is little enough sporting infrastructure in the country. Wipe out the GAA and what sporting facilities do we have left? I believe there is a strong case for the level of funding that was promised by Government (for work on GAA grounds ahead of the World Cup) to continue," he said.

Government contributed €30 million towards the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which was regarded as crucial to the World Cup bid. Is it now likely that with the rugby dream shattered, Government may feel they have done enough for GAA grounds for the foreseeable future?

"I don't know - that's a question for Government. It should, I believe, continue to invest in sporting facilities," said ó Fearghail.

Despite a protracted planning permission process, the redevelopment of Casement Park, Belfast continues to be a priority for the GAA.

"We are as committed now as we ever were. The hold-up is judicial. We need Casement Park. We have a dearth of good stadium facilities north of a line from Dublin to Galway and a new Casement Park would help in that regard."

If the north of the country has few enough big stadiums, the south is probably overloaded. The change in the format of the hurling and football championships next year will increase business at several grounds, which ó Fearghail believes is another positive spin-off from the championship adjustments. Next year will see the biggest shake-up of competition structures and scheduling in the GAA's history, leading to fears that it may be too much too quickly.

ó Fearghail disagrees, contending that all the changes are part of a carefully-considered process over many years.

"We wouldn't have done any of this if we thought it was risky. This has been thought about carefully over, I would suggest, 10 to 12 years. The players are at the centre of all of this. We're giving up all of September (for inter-county action). We have ceded financially on replays. We have done all of this to give more space to our club players and to improve welfare," he said.

Despite all that - and keeping all of April clear of inter-county action - Croke Park isn't exactly being showered with bouquets by the Club Players' Association (CPA).

The newly-formed organisation still has reservations, fearing that the lot of the club player won't improve unless there is a more radical overhaul.

ó Fearghail says that the GAA at central level has provided a pathway and now it's up to clubs and county boards to avail of it.

"We took control at Management and Central Council level and forged a path for change. Counties need to do the same. Most of our counties are well run - and we researched this - but some are not.

"That's the reality. We've now made the changes and the freedom is now there for clubs to take the initiative and ensure that county boards follow the direction laid out. If it doesn't happen, it's up to the clubs to take action. They have the power to do that if they use it. We're all club members after all," he said.

He does not believe that the changes to the hurling championship next year resulted from complaints that the game would be overshadowed by the increase in football action.

Nor does he accept that the changes were forced through against the wishes of several of the Tier 1 hurling counties.

"Change comes because people want it. The changes to the football championship were voted in democratically, just as the hurling changes were. That's how we work.

"And I don't accept that there are hurling counties and football counties - there are GAA counties. And decisions are made on that basis," he said.

ó Fearghail acknowledged when he took office in 2015 that there was some dissatisfaction around the country with the All-Ireland football qualifier format. However, there has been no change in the meantime, largely because of the difficulty getting any degree of consensus.

"It's one part of the jigsaw I wouldn't be fully comfortable with. If you're in Division 4 - and you have been for a number of years - and you have a record of losing your first round match, you should go into a separate competition (from the qualifiers). You should play for Sam Maguire in your first game but if you're beaten, you should enter another meaningful competition. We argued that but counties didn't want it. I can't crystal-ball-gaze but I think there will be a two-tier championship at some stage."

Asked about a recent controversy which arose over the level of salaries paid by the GPA, he said that strict conditions were laid down in the deal with the GAA.

"I don't know what their salaries are but I absolutely do know - because this was a key part of our agreement - that expenditure by the GPA in terms of salaries, only 25 per cent of our money can be spent on that. The other 75 per cent has to come from other sources," he said.

Describing the relationship with the GPA as 'good', ó Fearghail said that anything else would not be good for the GAA.

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