GAA property debate set to rumble on

ONE of the GAA’s longest running passion plays should come to an end on Saturday afternoon in Newcastle, Co Down when the association’s delegates are expected to give Central Council the right to admit soccer and rugby games to Croke Park in perpetuity.

It is just short of 10 years — October 2000 to be exact — since a motion was passed at a meeting of the Kilmore club in Roscommon proposing that the old Rule 42 be amended and the GAA’s flagship stadium be opened to ‘foreign’ games.

Fittingly, Kilmore will be front and centre again at the weekend.

Theirs is one of five motions on the clár looking to hand the Croke Park keys over to the Ard Chomhairle but the thorny question of who uses GAA property will continue to fester.

Though Annual Congress kicks off tomorrow night, it will be preceded by a meeting of that same Central Council which will address, among other things, the use of a Nemo Rangers-owned facility by the Irish rugby side during the Six Nations.

It is worth noting that, of the five motions relating to the Croke Park issue, four of them are very specific about the fact that the amendment to Rule 5.1 (which details use of GAA property) would not impact any other stadium, building or pitch owned by the association.

Even the most enthusiastic and vociferous for change on Rule 42 are adamant in their desire to shut the gates to the thousands of other GAA grounds nationwide.

Among them is Kilmore’s Tommy Kenoy, the man associated more than any other — apart from former president Sean Kelly — with the long and arduous but ultimately successful campaign to open up headquarters on Jones’ Road.

Kenoy understands the arguments for allowing soccer, rugby, basketball and the rest the use of GAA property, whether it be the recession and financial restraints GAA clubs are under or the social advantages to be gained from aiding sports whatever the hue.

“I have a lot of experience of working with GAA clubs from coaching and during the nine years I chaired the (Roscommon) county board,” said Kenoy, “and I would be conscious of the huge conflict that exists at local levels between soccer and the GAA.

“In particular, in the area of coaching and training teams where the players would have a conflict of interest in terms of playing soccer or Gaelic football. Basketball has entered the frame as well but that isn’t an issue in terms of the usage of playing fields.

“Rugby is also becoming more of a factor in some areas as well, although that isn’t much of an issue around here, but all the arguments that were made against the Croke Park issue would hold firm at local level.”

Kenoy knows better than most the level of hostility that exists at local levels to the idea of sharing dressing rooms and pitches with soccer and rugby clubs, despite the fact that players and coaches very often have feet in the various camps.

When Kilmore were first drafting their Rule 42 motion, they gave serious consideration to including the main provincial grounds in the amendment on the basis that, like Croke Park, they were virtual white elephants for vast stretches of the year.

It may have made no financial sense to keep them closed but, after canvassing far and wide, Kilmore soon came to realise that any motion which included any ground other than Croke Park was doomed to a defeat of mammoth proportions at Annual Congress.

That much was confirmed to Kenoy when, after addressing the floor at one Congress, he was followed by then Kerry chairman Sean Walsh who stated that the Kingdom would be supporting the motion precisely because it did not apply to any other property.

With so many counties pouring money into the bricks and mortar of their stadiums in the last 10 years, the GAA is now left with a hugely impressive network of venues, the vast majority of which are rarely, if ever, stretched to capacity.

“There would be a fairly general agreement around the GAA that there have been too many stadiums built in too many places for too few reasons. Every county board wants a big ground and that is a very understandable attitude but I would say it is a long time since Hyde Park hosted any sort of a major fixture, for example.

“There are a lot of maintenance costs, security costs to deal with for these stadiums and the argument is that we might have been better off putting it into coaching and development.

“That is a discussion for another day but it is also a lesson that has to be learned. Future projects will have to be very specific and better planned.”

The refurbished Croke Park might have been completed in the midst of the Celtic Tiger but its success and continued health has bucked the prevailing, nosediving trend.

A vote to leave the doors open for future visitors may not be worth much financially over the course of the next 10 years, what with the IRFU and FAI locked into tenancy agreements at the Aviva Stadium, but the GAA is already deep into bonus territory.

“When we sat down and drafted that motion we had no idea that it would bring in €36 million over the few years it was open,” said Kenoy. “We were talking about a million here and a million there but then Lansdowne closed and that changed the picture.”

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