Questions linger but Páirc saga resolved for now

The onus is on policymakers to establish clarity on the terms of public funding of stadium for future access, writes Joe Leogue.

In 1986, Galway had reached a second consecutive All-Ireland hurling final, a football match was looking for another venue to meet demand, and the GAA were at odds with the government over money.

That row focused on the association’s belief that it was wrong for the government to expect it to pay Dirt and Vat on hurleys.

The GAA’s protest went so far as to deny the usual All-Ireland final invites to taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and other politicians.

Meanwhile, Galway United, whose Terryland Park venue was deemed unsuitable to host their Uefa Cup fixture with FC Groningen, had been refused access to the GAA’s Pearse Stadium — a decision lamented by Galway mayor John Mulholland.

“It’s their pitch, it’s money they raised themselves, albeit all the money was risen from the people of Galway City, they weren’t necessarily associated with the GAA in any way,” he told RTÉ.

“They were a lot of businessmen, professional men, ordinary working people, who put their money in and I’m certain that the majority of those weren’t all members of GAA clubs, so therefore I think that they could soften their attitude a little bit.”

The GAA protest and the Galway United situation, along with the GAA’s involvement in horse racing, all formed the basis of an interview during Cork Local Radio’s Corkabout show, as documented by Sean Dunne’s radio column in the Cork Examiner on September 9, 1986.

Under the headline ‘Double-think democracy’, Dunne outlined the discussion between Con Murphy of the Cork County Board and Corkabout host Barrai Mescall.

“Horse racing, said Mr Murphy, is part of the lifestyle of this country. And lifestyle, of course is an entity the GAA are always anxious to preserve,” reads Dunne’s column.

“Then, like a cute cardplayer suddenly producing an ace, Barrai Mescall asked him if all this sport-sharing meant that he would give Galway United the use of a GAA pitch. No, said Mr. Murphy, that would be in breach of our constitution.

What this amounted to was that the GAA want the government to bestow the benefits of a democracy upon them and relieve them of paying Dirt tax and Vat on hurleys and so on. The GAA are not prepared to bestow democracy upon others, however, by sharing their pitches.

“And surely it is ridiculous for Con Murphy to believe that horse-racing is part of the lifestyle of this country while soccer, a game which attracts thousands, is somehow alien?”

But 32 years later, the song remains the same.

Galway will face Clare next weekend, hoping to reach their second consecutive All-Ireland hurling final, a football match is in need of a different venue to meet demands, and the GAA and the Government are at odds over money — this time the €30m gifted by the taxpayer to Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

The controversy over the tribute to Liam Miller — a private man, by all accounts, who shunned the limelight and who would have abhorred the furore of the past week — was, in many cases, an unedifying debacle, particularly online.

Opportunists unfairly used deserved criticism of the GAA hierarchy as cover to settle old scores, both real and imagined, against Gaelic games as a whole.

At the other extreme, those who hold domestic football with contempt took the opportunity to give the League of Ireland and the FAI a familiar kicking.

Some questioned why Cork soccer lacks a stadium fit for the occasion, willfully ignoring the financial burdens shouldered by the sport that aren’t endured by the GAA, which prides itself on an amateur ethos while enjoying the savings that come with such a stance.

Such whataboutery is also oblivious to the reality that the ground game in this city would rarely need a venue of such a size.

But as always, in the middle of the online extremes, there were the more reason-minded majority — most of whom wanted the game to be moved.

The right decision has been made. But now, while both far ends of the spectrum vent invective in the aftermath of this controversy, the middle ground, particularly in Cork, has two questions.

Bridie Miller pictured at the start line ahead of the Liam Miller 5k Memorial Run at Bishopstown. Pic: Doug Minihane

What do we want from Páirc Uí Chaoimh and, more pertinently, what can we rightfully expect from it?

Much like Pearse Stadium in 1986, ordinary working people have paid for the Páirc — to the tune of €30m.

Yet, 32 years on from Dunne’s column, it is still the case that, as he noted, that the GAA want the Government to bestow the benefits of a democracy upon them but are not prepared to bestow democracy upon others by sharing their pitches?

Are they happy for us to stump up nearly 40% of the cost of their stadium, while equally content to turn away others and let it sit idle for most of the year?

One suspects the minority who object to Páirc Uí Chaoimh being opened to others are also likely to boast of the GAA’s reach across the globe — turning a blind eye to the fact clubs from San Francisco to Shanghai depend on access to other codes’ facilities that would not be reciprocated here in Ireland.

The overwhelming public support for the opening of the Páirc show the days of a ‘GAA person’ or a ‘soccer person’ are gone. 

Instead, we have sportspeople, and none are more fitting of the title than Miller, a man who was at home at Páirc Uí Chaoimh as he was at Parkhead.

Hopefully the focus over the next two months will shift to where it ought to be — on paying tribute to a talented young man, cruelly taken too soon.

However, in the long run, real questions need to be asked as to whether the GAA rulebook runs contrary to the terms under which they took taxpayers’ money for Páirc Uí Chaoimh, at a time when €30m would have addressed more pressing issues facing the country.

In an interview with RTÉ on Saturday, GAA president John Horan took aim at unnamed “Government spokespersons” over comments made about the stadium’s funding, and said the association will be sitting down with the Government for an “honest and a frank discussion” on the issue.

GAA president John Horan

An honest and frank communication is also required from the Government with the taxpayer.

Either the terms of the funding provided means Páirc Uí Chaoimh is open to other sports or the GAA’s legal advice is correct and its original refusal to host the match was not at odds with the conditions attached to the European Commission’s decision.

The past week has seen politicians speak vaguely of the ‘spirit’ of the funding agreement while carefully avoiding committing more binding words to public comment.

If this is the case, why the U-turn by the GAA? Why release a statement refusing the venue change on a Friday, only to announce less than a day later that a meeting will take place — a summit that led to a change of heart?

We know the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport has a sports capital unit that oversees grant funding and that its officials were involved in talks with the GAA over the Páirc saga. 

What we don’t know is what conclusions these officials have drawn from this controversy. Our political leaders have been careful to avoid expressing any conclusive remarks on this aspect of the issue.

The onus is now on these policymakers to establish definitive clarity as to what the terms of the public funding of Páirc Uí Chaoimh means for access to the stadium in future. 

Failure to do so will ensure that, much like Galway United’s European exploits in the 1980s, the tribute to Liam Miller will become just another reference point the next time such a debacle undoubtedly arises.

Galway United, by the way, lost their Uefa Cup match 3-1. 

The game took place some 50km west of Terryland Park at Páirc an Chathanaigh, Carraroe— a pitch used by both An Ghaeltacht’s rugby club and An Cheathrú Rua GAA.

PaperTalk GAA Podcast: Hurling delirium, hurling overload, hurling snobbery, and a hurling documentary.


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