The Government and the Gaelic Players Association are shortly to announce the details of a programme which will see inter-county players take on ambassadorial roles across the community.

The GPA is to receive a total of €6.9m to support its members over the next three years, but Minister of State with responsibility for sport Patrick O’Donovan says the funding is linked to the programme, which will involve GAA players “where we feel a greater good can be achieved” for the community as a whole.

“It’s not a one-way street,” O’Donovan said. “I met Dermot Earley recently, the new GPA CEO, and I worked well with Dessie Farrell when he was in that position.

“I have huge respect for what they’re doing for young lads. But in return for the government investment being made, to the tune of €6.9m over three years, we’re looking for them to carry out ambassadorial roles for us.

“We’re finishing off an agreement for a programme which they will carry out for us — it won’t be anything contentious, nothing that people will have a row with the GPA or the government about, but there’ll certainly be programmes, be those in the Department of Health, Agriculture, or wherever, where we feel a greater good can be achieved, and they’ve signed up to do that. We hope to announce that shortly.”

O’Donovan sees the partnership as a good one, with high profile ambassadors embedded in their communities.

“If as a government we want, in relation to our national games, to preserve the concept of amateurism, to preserve the concept of a player being rooted in his or her community, and to enable the community to have access to the player — while at the same time enabling that player to maintain a day job or ensuring their welfare is looked after, whether financially or in terms of injuries or whatever.

“If we want all of that and we want the level of enjoyment that every county in Ireland aspires to — and no county more than my own Limerick would love to see an All-Ireland won - then at some stage a government has to put its hand in its pocket. That’s what we’re doing.”

O’Donovan added that he felt historically the level of government support for the player body was “totally below where it should be” and that he “wanted to redress that.”

“I don’t apologise to anybody for it. It’s the right thing to do, these are high-performance athletes in the same way that Olympic athletes are high-performance.

“If they were representing Ireland at international level there would be an outcry from elements of the media about the way they were treated. They don’t have access to the level of support our international athletes have, but this is our domestic code. These are our indigenous games.

“The fact that we have government support is very welcome, but I always believed, from the day I went into the department, that it was totally below where it should be. I made a decision at the start that I wanted to redress that.

“I don’t apologise to anyone for that. I looked under every rock I found along the way to ensure that I could, at the end of the day, to help and facilitate an improvement in the situation.”

The Government has also pledged €1 million to the Women’s GPA over two years — “the first time any government recognised women’s sport, to the extent we have,” says O’Donovan, who grabbed headlines before Christmas when suggesting sports governing bodies would face funding cuts if they didn’t fulfil gender quotas.

However, when the Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena was opened last January, one photograph taken at the event featured 13 men, for instance, and not one woman.

“I was one of the 13 men,” says O’Donovan. “Perceptions matter. They do. If I’d gone the usual route (regarding quotas), putting an innocuous notice on our website or on the back page of the newspapers, that we were looking for views on how to get more women involved in sport, I’d have gotten no traction, it would have been a case of, ‘oh, that’s the department’.

My opposite number in the UK would have said there were similar difficulties in the UK, where it was resented by many organisations. ‘You’re going to meet huge resistance,’ she told me — the only thing that surprised me was the length of time it took for that resistance to emerge here.

“But the genie is out of the bottle now and can’t be put back in. We have a decision to make now as to whether we believe it’s appropriate for sporting organisations, not only in relation to women, or men in some cases, but people with intellectual disabilities, the new Irish, and people who feel they’re on the margins.

“In return for significant State investment in sport, what are sporting organisations doing to make sure people don’t feel left out?

“That’s why I decided to draw a kick on the table, and if today were yesterday, I’d do exactly the same again, because all of a sudden there was a focus on something.

“Some of the reactions didn’t surprise me. They had more in common with the smoking clubs of Edwardian London when they were discussing the value or otherwise of giving women the vote.”


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