Refusal to host match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh casts a dark shadow over Liam Miller tribute match

The celebration of a Cork sporting hero’s life is now a PR disaster for the GAA, writes Joe Leogue.

Refusal to host match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh casts a dark shadow over  Liam Miller tribute match

The rumours were always there.

“You know they wanted to have it in the Páirc don’t you?” an in-the-know would say, followed by a nod of the head and pursed lips.

“Was never going to happen, sure you know what they’re like.”

As with everything now, the pressure first mounted online, the confirmation of each star name bringing with it more tweets and Facebook comments calling for it to be held in the bigger venue.

Keane: “Put it in the Páirc.”

Giggs: “The Cross is too small.”

Scholes: “It’ll sell out in minutes.”

But it wasn’t until Wednesday’s launch for the tribute match in aid of the bereaved family of the late Liam Miller — a Corkman who scaled the heights of his sport before being taken all too soon at the age of 36 — that the pressure mounting finally burst into the mainstream.

It was Lord Mayor Mick Finn, addressing the media in his chambers in City Hall, who confirmed what the in-the-knows knew all along.

“Turners Cross stadium will be packed to capacity, the tickets are going to fly out the door,” Mr Finn said in his opening remarks.

“One pity is that we didn’t have the use of a bigger venue in the city. I know attempts were made to get Páirc Uí Chaoimh, which is a pity, but I have no doubt that the Cork public will row in behind this and it will be a fantastic event.”

It wasn’t long after until questions from the press returned to that remark.

Sensing the forthcoming headlines, both the Lord Mayor and organising committee chairman Michael O’Flynn quickly pointed out how the Cork County Board were receptive to the idea and offered the Pairc’s conference facilities, but it wasn’t a runner.

Rules are rules.

This was 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.

Rules are rules.

The pressure broke. Phone-in radio shows, petitions, politicians sounding off from digital soapboxes.

But, amid the noise, there was a clear signal as to where the controversy would go next.

Barrister Tim O’Connor highlighted how the refusal to host the game at PUiC on the grounds that Keane and co won’t play the ‘right’ sport could run contrary to the conditions attached to the €30m in taxpayers’ money granted for the stadium’s redevelopment in 2014.

Europe had intervened, wanting to make sure the money wasn’t illegal State aid.

In giving its blessing, the European Commission issued an 11-page decision, refreshingly free of legalese and stated in plain English.

Among the listed users of the stadium, the EC said Pairc Ui Chaoimh “could be rented out to other field sports”, and under the terms and conditions of its use, the EC said the stadium “will be open to various users on a non-discriminatory and transparent basis”.

It said the County Board “will rent out the PUiC’s facilities to third parties to organise sporting and other commercial events” at the going market rate — and voluntary associations would be granted the use of the stadium for free.

And on page six, paragraph 27 the European Commission made clear the consequences for ignoring these terms.

“The Irish authorities 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.”

There is precedence for this sort of thing. In 2016, for example, the Commission found that the Spanish government’s assistance afforded to Real Madrid breached State aid rules, and the club was ordered to repay more than €20m.

On Thursday morning, the Irish Examiner highlighted the terms of the deal to the Cork County Board, GAA headquarters, and also the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport which had signed off on the grant.

Calls and emails seeking a response followed throughout the day. The County Board was the first to respond, only to refer the matter to GAA HQ, which waited until the evening to issue a short ‘no comment’.

It wasn’t until Thursday evening that the department confirmed it was now examining the situation.

“The department was not contacted by the event organisers,” it said.

“The redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh received an allocation of €3m. 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.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was sports minister in May 2014 when the €30m funding was approved, yesterday said he would “stay out of it” — only to confirm that he has spoken with junior sports minister Brendan Griffin on the matter.

Others weren’t as reticent to nail their colours to the mast.

“The GAA is rooted in community. Liam Miller and family are of our community,” said Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, based in Páirc Uí Chaoimh’s Cork South Central constituency.

“Páirc Uí Chaoimh is underpinned by our community. The unique event organised to reflect that community ethos and to honour Liam Miller should be held in Páirc Uí Chaoimh,” he said.

Fianna Fáil’s sports spokesman Kevin O’Keeffe has written to the GAA president calling for the match to get the green light. Party councillor Bernard Moynihan says he has the blessing of the county mayor to suspend standing orders to discuss the matter at Monday’s meeting of Cork County Council.

Meanwhile, news of the department’s intervention was carried on the front page of the Irish Examiner papers that hit the streets early yesterday morning as eager football fans beat the sunrise to form an orderly queue along Merchants Quay, hoping to secure their tickets in person when they went on sale at 10am.

Within minutes, frustrated supporters found — to no surprise — the tickets were sold out and most hoping to go to a unique occasion were left disappointed.

All the more disappointing is how a celebration of a Corkman, who achieved in a short life what most of us can only dream of, is now another PR nightmare for the GAA.

The match organisers highlighted Liam’s GAA pedigree at last Wednesday’s launch, touching upon his time at Éire Óg, and recalling how he captained his side to a Sciath na Scol final.

But bureaucracy means that it looks unlikely that Liam Miller’s illustrious former teammates will follow in his footsteps by playing at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

Much like the Blackrock End over the Atlantic Pond, the debate over a stadium that benefited from €30m of our money now casts a shadow over a tribute to a man who transcended archaic divisions and left a legacy that should be celebrated by as many people as possible in his home city.

But yesterday’s statement from the GAA shows they are not for turning — and that they believe their ban doesn’t violate the terms of the €30m grant.

Now we wait to see what the Government says about the decision and, all the while, the spectre of the European Commission looms large.

After all, rules are rules.

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