Big weekend for Croke Park

The GAA is often credited with healing the wounds of the country’s bitter civil war but this weekend it is fighting its own internal battle.

The GAA is often credited with healing the wounds of the country’s bitter civil war but this weekend it is fighting its own internal battle.

The issue at stake goes to the heart of the association’s future – should it open its spiritual home, the 82,000-seater Croke Park stadium, to soccer and rugby, or maintain it exclusively for its own use?

Every political trick in the GAA rule book – and many which are not – is being utilised by the supporters and the opponents of opening the stadium, in advance of the crucial vote at the GAA annual congress in Dublin this weekend.

Legal advice has been taken, back-up plans are being prepared and all the time, negotiations are taking place in clubhouses and bars, away from the intense glare of the media.

“It’s on a knife-edge,” said Roscommon GAA official Tommy Kenoy, who is the author of one of the seven motions in favour of opening up Croke Park by amending the controversial Rule 42.

He and other supporters of the campaign to open up Croke Park will require a two-thirds majority, rather than the normal simple majority, to amend the rule in question.

“For every one vote the no side gets, we need two, which is a crazy form of democracy, but that’s the way it goes,” said Mr Kenoy.

So far, 24 out of the 26 counties in the Republic support the amendment but all of the six counties in Northern Ireland oppose it.

Mr Kenoy and others are planning to insist that voting at the annual congress is through a show of hands to prevent delegates deliberately changing their votes.

“If a secret ballot goes ahead, there is little doubt that there will be substantial slippage on the Yes side,” he said.

Croke Park is now acknowledged as one of the finest stadia in Europe and its creators are currently planning to enhance it even further with 11 bars and restaurants, a hotel and a giant outdoor television screen.

But the issue of opening it to other sports took off after Taoiseach Bertie Ahern tried to build a national sports stadium in his north Dublin constituency and gathered even more momentum when his plans foundered.

The prospect of the Irish soccer and rugby teams playing their home fixtures abroad when the redevelopment of the dilapidated Lansdowne Road stadium begins next year has concentrated minds in the GAA.

One of the most influential figures in the GAA, former president Peter Quinn, has argued that it is in the “national interest” for the GAA to share its facility with the FAI and the IRFU.

The GAA would also benefit financially to the tune of up to €2m per match, but with the 3€6m debt of Croke Park due to be cleared in five years, this is not a pressing issue.

Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, a former Kerry manager and All-Ireland winning player, said the most serious risk to the GAA was the damage that a no vote would bring.

“It is doing a lot of damage to the perception of Gaelic games in urban areas,” he said.

“Young lads perceive it as an association of bigots when in fact 95% of GAA people are open about sports and follow all sports. It’s in the interest of the GAA to kick it (Rule 42) out of the way.”

He said that in school yards in Kerry, a county renowned for its loyalty to the GAA, children were complaining that the association would not let their heroes, like Irish rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll, play in Croke Park.

Although the GAA is the largest sporting organisation in the county, with 350,000 players and 2,000 clubs, it is much weaker in urban areas than rural areas. In some parts of Dublin, its “market share” is less than 5%.

“The power of this association within the country is enormous. But it has got to change and if it doesn't, it will die,” said Mr O’Sullivan.

The opposition to opening Croke Park is rooted in GAA history. In 1920, the revolutionary Michael Collins organised the shooting of 19 British secret agents and enraged British soldiers shot dead 14 people, including a player, in Croke Park in response.

A long-standing ban on members of the British security forces playing gaelic football and hurling was imposed until 2001, when it was lifted at the GAA’s annual congress.

GAA members in the North opposed the lifting of that ban and are similarly opposed to any change in Rule 42.

They have long memories of the hostile treatment meted out by British state forces to GAA members during the Troubles, as well as a campaign of targeted assassinations and clubhouse burnings by loyalist paramilitaries.

In the Republic, the reasons for opposing Rule 42 are different. Cork, one of the biggest GAA counties, argues that the GAA should keep Croke Park for its own sports rather than allowing it to be used for the benefit of other sports.

Cork County GAA board spokesman John Motherway said they bitterly resented people who attempted to portray them as bigots.

“We’ve proved in Cork that we’re as modern as anyone, with two stadia and a network of clubs across the county. We feel the GAA should do its own business and play as many GAA games in Croke Park as possible,” he said.

The GAA has been at the heart of Irish sport, politics and society for more than 120 years and the poet Patrick Kavanagh once commented: “No man can adequately describe Irish life who ignores the GAA.”

This weekend everyone will be watching.

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