Hill 16 fence will create other barriers

STUDY the GAA for long enough and you will realise that the fuel which runs the organisation is trust.

While the sophisticates in the media often like to mock county board men for their pioneer pins and their penchant for a ham sandwich, it’s also true that GAA officialdom is synonymous with high moral standards and probity in all affairs.

The significant latitude afforded to GAA leaders allows them to go about their business without being delayed by the democratic processes which afflict other institutions. It’s the huge levels of trust invested in leaders which underpins the GAA’s entire operating procedure. Unfortunately, the current debate about pitch invasions (or pitch celebrations as I prefer to call them) has raised some concerns about how the GAA is conducting its business.

Old-fashioned values like consistency and openness appear to have been replaced by the spin doctoring of modern politics. At this year’s Annual Congress, the clamour to end pitch celebrations started with a presentation from Con Hogan who told delegates: “They cannot all be wrong, and the 96 people who died at Hillsborough, the 66 who died at Ibrox, and the 39 people who died at Heysel Stadium are proof that when pitch invasions occur, when people are crushed against barriers, when exits are blocked, when people move against each other in counter-flows then we have lost control, people’s lives are put at risk and sooner or later we will have fatalities.”

Understandably alarmed by these distressing examples, there was no dissent in the Slieve Donard Hotel. The GAA continued to seize the moral high ground when Christy Cooney explained why a 2.8m fence was going to be erected on Hill 16.

At the press briefing, Christy asked reporters: “What if a child gets trampled on? Or if someone gets killed?” However, it appears the GAA’s hierarchy is only prepared to raise the question of children getting injured as long as the solution involves ending so-called pitch invasions.

The major problem with the GAA’s brilliant idea of caging 9,000 spectators on Hill 16 is that the barrier presents a greater threat to the safety of supporters than pitch celebrations.

And don’t just take my word for it. After his investigation into the Hillsborough Disaster, Lord Chief Justice Taylor was unequivocal in his recommendation that supporters should have ready access to the pitch.

Paragraph 181 of The Taylor Report states: “So far, no fatality has resulted from a pitch invasion, whereas 95 people died against a fence installed to prevent such invasion.”

GAA officials have been at pains to reveal that there will be emergency gates in their lovely new fence, conveniently ignoring the fact that there were emergency gates in the fencing at Hillsborough.

Interestingly, now that a counter-argument has been raised against the GAA, and they have been warned about the hazards, they have tried to shift the debate.

All of a sudden, after months of raising the spectre of supporters being killed in stampedes, the GAA doesn’t want to talk about major tragedies anymore. Stadium chief Peter McKenna said: “I think it’s dangerous to bring in the example of Hillsborough.” Erm? But the GAA has repeatedly supplied mixed messages about its motives for ending pitch invasions and putting a barrier on Hill 16. First it was the cost of re-laying the pitch; then it was the threat of court cases; then the germs on people’s shoes were ruining the grass; then it was the hypothetical trampling of infants.

Most recently, the press statement that confirmed the building of the barrier made reference to the events which took place at this year’s Leinster final.

This meant that in response to supporters racing onto the pitch from the Hogan Stand, the GAA decided to erect a wall at the other end of the ground. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Christy Cooney was quick to spot the incongruity. A few days later, Christy was asked if the Leinster final was a factor. He said it wasn’t. But when Peter McKenna was interviewed on radio, he said it was.

So, there you have it. The example of Hillsborough can be employed as long as we are putting forward an argument to end pitch celebrations.

But we can’t talk about Hillsborough if we’re pointing out that our new fence might actually replicate the conditions which led to 95 people being crushed to death (a 96th died later due to his injuries).

But the reason we are putting up this wall is because of shameful incidents that took place during the Leinster final. Sorry. That’s wrong. That has nothing to do with it.

But if you don’t want to listen to the GAA then at least listen to the GPA’s anti-pitch celebration bulletins, which are repeated ad nauseam on Croke Park’s big screen.

We can trust the players, can’t we? The GPA agrees with the GAA, but after receiving a promise for €1.1m, they’re probably going to agree with Croke Park on most things. The GAA’s handling of this affair has been clumsy at best, cynical at worst.

The decision flies in the face of The Taylor Report and it should be abandoned immediately. Unfortunately, it is now abundantly clear that the key objective is to stop fans coming onto the pitch. This has become such an obsession that the health and safety of supporters is now a secondary consideration.

In all probability, the GAA’s plan will work. By and large, people are obedient and submissive to authority. If the Hill is caged, then the supporters in the seats will stay seated.

It will be mission accomplished for the GAA. But at what price? You can’t put 9,000 people behind a nine-foot fence and tell them it’s for their own good, particularly when there is compelling evidence to show that their safety is actually being compromised.

Furthermore, it’s not just the members who are stuck behind that barrier whose trust in the GAA’s leadership will be fractured. And that’s not good — because without trust, the GAA just doesn’t work.

Contact: p.heaney@irishnews.com

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