Kieran Shannon: As GPA achieve grant equality, other second-class athletes can’t be ignored

In addressing one form of inequality, Sports Minister Jack Chambers’ announcement yesterday has highlighted another. Some animals remain more equal than others and that animal is the GAA
Kieran Shannon: As GPA achieve grant equality, other second-class athletes can’t be ignored

Any bit of gender-equality legislation is to be welcomed. But it’d be even greater if Jack Chambers and the Government were to introduce the Irish equivalent of Title IX into Irish sport. Picture: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

Fair play to the GPA, they’ve nailed it again. 

This time 14 years ago the players’ body, then only representing the male inter-county game, was struggling to gain much affection and even credibility, at least with Paul Galvin anyway. He wasn’t even a member. “I don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “They need to get a hold of an issue and nail it.”

The government grants fund was that issue. Ever since 2002, when Charlie McCreevy introduced a tax break scheme for professional sportspeople upon their retirement, the GPA, under the leadership of Dessie Farrell, had been lobbying for some gesture of recognition from the State and its exchequer, not least because the inter-county game contributed to that exchequer. 

Finally in the autumn of that year, after another bout of sabre-rattling that involved a bit of strike threatening, it sealed the deal, getting both the GAA and the government to agree to €3.5m worth of grants being distributed by Sport Ireland, with something for every male county player, from Galvin, who’d just won another All-Ireland, to a Tyrone hurler.

Now, less than half a year after its merger with the WGPA, the GPA has once more displayed its clout, ushering in a new age of equality while simultaneously throwing a nice elbow at its critics who’ve questioned its relevance and radicalism. 

Successfully campaigning for a three-fold increase in the grant funding of female players, meaning they’ll take in as much as their male equivalents — how more relevant and radical can you be than that?

It would seem there’s nothing to criticise here, only celebrate. After all, who in their right mind isn’t in favour of equality? Who’d begrudge a county female player no longer being out of pocket?

Only it’s not quite as simple as that. In addressing one form of inequality, Sports Minister Jack Chambers’ announcement yesterday has highlighted another. Some animals remain more equal than others and that animal is the GAA.

At the moment there are essentially three forms of government grants for Irish athletes. The longest-standing is the international carding scheme. This year, an Olympic year, it amounts to €2.7m to help 130 athletes and six squads across 16 sports qualify for and achieve medals at European, world, Olympic and Paralympic events. 

Someone like John Travers, recently interviewed by this column and a nine-time national champion and record national indoor 3km holder, doesn’t qualify for even a cent.

Then there is the existing grant for GAA male inter-county players, which runs to €3m, more than all those other sports combined.

And now you can add the €2.4m female county players will receive, up €1.7m on last year’s allocation. As Chambers explained to Claire Byrne on RTÉ radio yesterday, it’s only less than the male equivalent because there are fewer female county players. 

“What I propose on doing is that we have €1,200 for both [male and female],” he explained, whereas last year only €424 was being invested for each woman.

In other words, 67% of all government grants to Irish athletes will be allocated to GAA county players, male or female.

This is at a time when other sports, like basketball, which has historically been far more inclusive and equitable than Gaelic football in this country, don’t receive a cent of funding from Sport Ireland or the Government for its national teams. It took qualifying for a World Cup for the Irish women’s hockey team to be properly supported.

The parents of teenagers who hope to stand to the Tricolour in international basketball competition have to fork out roughly €5,000 a year for the privilege. Their senior national teams, while finally allowed to train indoors again this past fortnight, will likewise have to pay out of their own pocket to train for their country, sometimes staying in hostels rather than hotels when they reopen. 

This is a sport in which Ireland first fielded a women’s team in European competition back in 1972 when there wasn’t even a Ladies Gaelic Football Association or teams to play for the Brendan Martin Cup.

McCreevy was well aware he was opening a can of worms when giving that tax break for former sports pros. “I knew those in the amateur sporting organisations would try to do something,” the former finance minister told an Oireachtas committee in 2004.

The GPA — as opposed to a GAA concerned it could compromise its amateur status — were among the first to wade in. “Is it government policy now that professional sportspeople are more important than amateurs,” its chief executive Dessie Farrell rhetorically asked.

McCreevy countered. While he had been, and would continue to be, generous in allocating State funding to the GAA, issuing grants to players would create all kinds of anomalies; any such recompense to amateur players was a matter for their respective governing bodies, not the government itself.

Farrell and the GPA would persist, continuously making in-roads. in 2007 they eventually got their way. They won the argument. And the thrust of that argument was economic. 

Farrell would reiterate it in these pages in 2016 when the scheme was under threat, citing a 2010 study that estimated the total annual spending generated by inter-county GAA fixtures was €485m. “Every inter-county player generates on average €100,000 of real value annually for the Irish economy… They help fill stadiums, trains, restaurants, garages, bars, and hotels.”

It is suffice to say the women’s game or player does not have the same economical draw; for all the strides it has made and the phenomenal crowds that have attended recent ladies football All-Ireland finals, the players themselves have bemoaned how that day is a total outlier.

Indeed back in 2007 no one was making a case for the women’s game at all. “It’s up to the Ladies Football and Camogie Associations to finalise their own system if they so wish,” said then GAA president Nickey Brennan, more out of relief and fatigue than anything else. “I have enough on my plate trying to sort this out on behalf of the GAA.”

In recent years though there’s been a change in awareness and argument. Yesterday the co-chairs of the GPA’s national executive, Maria Kinsella and Tom Parsons, proclaimed how it was a triumph and recognition for the “role of female inter-county players and the value that they contribute within Irish society”.

Outgoing GPA chief executive Paul Flynn noted that his wife, Fiona Hudson, put in just as much effort playing for Dublin as he did but gets less.

Chambers was on the same wavelength, having read the WGPA’s Levelling the Field report that highlighted for him the huge difficulty female county players have around expenses. “For all the young women and girls who are playing camogie and ladies football, we have to ensure there is no artificial glass ceiling when it comes to sport and I am serious about rectifying that.”

For the most part, such sentiments are to be applauded and welcomed. It is only right that gender does not put a ceiling on anyone’s experience in sport. Female county players do contribute to society and put in serious dedication.

But aren’t international basketball players such as Gráinne Dwyer and Edel Thornton also role models, especially on the northside of Cork? Their level of commitment and talent at the minimum equal to anyone who plays in Croke Park? 

Yet their team, let alone they themselves, don’t receive a cent from Chambers and the State. A glass ceiling continues to be put on a sport like theirs that continues to be hugely popular with girls but vulnerable to losing them when one sport comes with a grant and another doesn’t.

To claim that this is mere whataboutery is to ignore that the genesis of the entire GAA grant scheme was based on whataboutery. In advocating for grants to male GAA players back in 2005, former Kerry footballer and Fine Gael TD Jimmy Deenihan protested to McCreevy: “[GAA] people feel they have been left out and treated like second-class athletes. GAA county players who train all year round regard themselves as elite athletes in the same way as international athletes do.”

Now it is all county players who are regarded as the more elite by the Government grant scheme while international athletes are left out.

Any bit of gender-equality legislation is to be welcomed. But it’d be even greater if Chambers and the Government were to introduce the Irish equivalent of Title IX into Irish sport. 

The GAA itself should be having to provide its county grounds and facilities to female athletes the same way it does to its male athletes — the way other sports do, in other words.

In truth, in non-Covid times the GAA itself — be it Central Council or its male county boards — should be the ones helping cover the expenses of the women’s game. During the 2008 crash, an assistant secretary to the sports department said of the GAA grants: “The reality of these schemes is that the taxpayer is being asked to fund mileage claims for amateur players to play their own sport.” He had a point.

In many ways, yesterday’s news is to be welcomed. But in doing so Chambers is welcoming a whole lot of other justifiable and hard cases to his door.

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