By Joe Leogue
The Government is to seek an explanation from the Cork County Board, amid concerns that the decision not to allow the Liam Miller tribute match take place at Pairc Ui Chaoimh may have broken the conditions of a grant paid towards the stadium’s redevelopment.
The €80m redevelopment of Pairc Ui Chaoimh received €30m in public funding, and the EU approved the grant on condition that the stadium “will be open to various users on a non-discriminatory and transparent basis”.
Former Irish international Liam Miller died earlier this year at the age of 36. The Cork native played for Manchester United, Celtic, and Cork City and is survived by his wife and three children.
Tickets for the September 23 match at the 7,000-capacity Turners Cross, which is set to feature a host of former Manchester United, Celtic, and Ireland stars, went on sale this morning and were expected to be snapped up within minutes.
Speaking at Wednesday’s launch of the tribute match in aid of Miller’s family, the organisers behind the event said they had sought the use of the 45,000-capacity Pairc Ui Chaoimh for the occasion, but that the GAA’s rules on the use of its facilities by other sporting codes prohibited the hosting of the game at the stadium.
This was yesterday confirmed by Cork County Board Chairperson Tracey Kennedy, who said she was receptive to the idea, but that neither Croke Park nor the GAA Central Council could give it the go-ahead.
“The rule states that for such an event to take place it would require permission from Congress and that does not take place until next February,” Ms Kennedy told the Evening Echo.
In May 2014 the Government announced that it would provide a €30m grant towards the redevelopment of Pairc Ui Chaoimh - only for the European Commission to subsequently declare that it was to investigate whether the funding violated State Aid rules.
In July 2016, the Commission issued an 11-page decision in which it gave the opinion that it did not consider that the €30m grant amounted to illegal State aid.
However in its decision, the Commission noted that the “stadium could be rented out to other field sports”, and under the terms and conditions for the use of the stadium, it said that Pairc Ui Chaoimh “will be open to various users on a non-discriminatory and transparent basis”.
It further said that the Cork County Board “will rent out the Pairc Ui Chaoimh's facilities to third parties to organise sporting and other commercial events.”
The same section of the decision states that the Irish government “will monitor the use of the facility over a period of at least 15 years”.
“If the terms of the grant are not complied with, and the facility is not used as intended, this could result in the claw-back of aid,” the Commission warned at the time.
Writing in today’s Irish Examiner, Tim O’Connor BL, who is a practising barrister at the Irish Bar with a special interest in sport and the law, said it is “hard to see how a blanket refusal to comply with these terms, and making no effort to comply with them two years after clearance on these terms, can be justified by the County Board”.
“It is even harder to see a better example of a voluntary sporting event than a charity match to raise funds for the family of a Cork sportsman,” he writes.
The grant was approved by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Last night a Department spokesperson said they were not contacted by the match organisers, but would be in touch with the Cork County Board over the issue.
“The redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh received an allocation of €30 million. In accordance with the conditions of the grant, the Department is monitoring the use of the facility and will liaise with Cork County Board on this issue,” the spokesperson said.
Earlier the Irish Examiner had put questions to both the GAA and Cork County Board arising from the conditions contained in the European Commission’s ruling.
The County Board referred the matter to GAA headquarters, which in turn said it had no comment.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.