The recent announcement of a €30 million rescue package for the FAI was heralded as a ‘new era of hope’ in Minister Shane Ross’s Sunday Independent column on February 2nd.
The Minister for Sport went on to suggest that we could “celebrate in moderation” due to the fact that the grassroots “has been recognised as the prime focus of Ireland’s most popular sport”. He noted that “lower and middle-paid jobs have been secured” and warned that the conditions of the deal “must be enforced to ensure our association never falls into the wrong hands again”.
Not surprisingly, the backlash came swiftly as other sporting organisations began accusing the Minister of rewarding bad governance.
First out of the traps was Basketball Ireland, who released a statement highlighting the fact that a financial lifeline hadn’t been forthcoming when they ran up debts of €1.5 million in 2008. Instead they were forced to impose a levy on their members and make half of their employees redundant.
On the following day, an article by Martin Breheny appeared in the Irish Independent under the headline ‘GAA head the list facing a fleecing after FAI bailout’.
Breheny made a number of pertinent points, particularly in relation to the fact that ordinary citizens will ultimately be the ones that’ll have to “reach into their pockets to pay for the mismanagement of others”. He was also heavily critical of Minister Shane Ross and his assertion that the FAI rescue package was a cause to “celebrate in moderation”.
“Celebrate what – even in moderation?” Breheny thundered. “That under the unsuspecting noses of his department and Sport Ireland, one of the country’s major sporting organisations landed the taxpayer with a massive bill? Yes Minister, let’s raise a glass to that. Cheers.”
It’s a fair point. However, I believe Breheny is on much shakier ground if he thinks the GAA have any reason to gripe over the FAI bailout. While Basketball Ireland can rightly point to the fact that they were abandoned in their hour of need, the GAA have generally found Government Buildings a much more welcoming place.
For instance, when Dublin GAA found itself sinking into crisis in the early-2000s they were able to turn to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for help. And when John Bailey, the then-Chairman of Dublin GAA, walked into Ahern’s office on a random day in 2002, it arguably laid the foundations for the unprecedented levels of success that were to follow in the subsequent decade.
As a result of that meeting, a steady funding stream was provided for Gaelic Games in the capital city. It was described as follows in an article by John Fogarty for the Irish Examiner in August 2018.
“[Bertie] Ahern played a significant role in Government money being provided for the development of Gaelic games in his native county, close to €1m per year since 2005 via Sport Ireland, which works out at approximately €13m.”
When asked about this on Radio Kerry’s Terrace Talk programme in August 2018, Ahern offered the following explanation for his willingness to provide financial assistance for GAA in the capital city.
“We weren’t doing well at the end of the last decade. As manager of the team, Pat [Gilroy] was going around trying to organise funding. If the success didn’t come in 2011 and the good league campaign, we wouldn’t have got the sponsorship.
“Yes, Dublin has a big population, but it’s a tough game in Dublin. It’s huge soccer country; it’s huge rugby country; it’s huge people-who-couldn’t-care-less-about-Gaelic-football; huge new Irish population, if I put it that way; and you have people who just aren’t sympathetic to GAA in the city.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Bertie Ahern on the merits of providing such disproportionate funding for a single county, it has certainly been a successful strategy in terms of boosting rates of participation in the capital. And if you consider participation in sport to be a social good, then it should be regarded as money well spent.
However, it has also been accompanied by one glaring failure. Participation rates in Gaelic Games may be soaring in Dublin, but it has largely been confined to middle class areas of the city. Since the funding started rolling in around 15 years ago, Dublin GAA has failed make a significant impact in working class areas and those parts of the inner city that have been blighted by social deprivation.
For instance, one of the major success stories has been the creation of a new GAA club in the leafy suburb of Castleknock. It was founded in 1998, and an extensive profile piece on the club appeared in the Irish Independent on the eve of last September’s All-Ireland Football Final.
Under the headline ‘Lattes and lineballs: How the GAA conquered the Dublin suburbs’, John Meagher outlined the impressive work that went into developing the club over a 21-year period, culminating in plans to open “an enormous and architecturally striking clubhouse worth in the region of €1.5m”.
He went to note that club member Ciaran Kilkenny would be donning the ‘Number 15’ jersey for Dublin in the following day’s decider, as they chased an unprecedented fifth Sam Maguire Cup in a row.
“If these are good times for one of the fastest-growing sports clubs in the country – and for its illustrious poster-boy who is also a gifted hurler – it’s never been a better time for the GAA and its stranglehold on middle-class Dublin,” Meagher added.
But the same article included a note of concern from the GAA’s Director of Games Development & Research, Pat Daly.
“You can never generalise, because there would be a good GAA presence in somewhere like Finglas. But in north Clondalkin and parts of Tallaght, Gaelic games wouldn’t have a profile there as much as you’d have elsewhere.
“It can be difficult to penetrate parts of Dublin, because it’s not that you’re trying to develop the games there, it’s the social problems you might have to overcome,” Daly explained.
Those sentiments were echoed by Castleknock GAA Club Chairman Charlie Spillane, who admitted that the club were having difficulties achieving its targets outside the middle classes.
Of course many people will point to Philly McMahon’s inspirational story as an example of how the GAA can help vulnerable young kids steer clear of the scourge of drugs and crime. Unfortunately, though, the Dublin and Ballymun Kickhams star would appear to be an exception in terms of the demographic that generally seems to gravitate towards Gaelic Games.
The GAA has always prided itself on its connection to the grassroots, and its ability to spread its tentacles into every parish in the country. Yet its inability to make more of an impact in working class and deprived areas, particularly in Dublin at a time when the game has never been stronger in the city, is certainly regrettable.
At a time when the scourge of drugs and gangland crime are devastating communities in the inner city and beyond, it is imperative that sporting organisations are furnished with funds to help provide a viable alternative for young kids.
And this takes us back to the FAI bailout. While the GAA struggles to capture the hearts and minds of working class communities, soccer continues to thrive in the most socially-deprived areas of the country.
The FAI Junior Cup attracts an entry of around 600 clubs every year, making it one of the largest national amateur cup competitions in Europe. Its inaugural competition took place in 1923/24 and was won by Brideville, a club based in The Liberties area of Dublin’s south inner city.
The most successful club of the last ten years has been Sheriff Youth Club, who are based in Sheriff Street. The north inner city club has lifted the FAI Junior Cup on four separate occasions since 2012, and were runners-up twice.
A host of other soccer clubs have established a strong presence in working class areas of Dublin. They include Cherry Orchard (based in Ballyfermot), Crumlin United, Eastwall/Bessborough F.C., Liffey Wanderers F.C., Home Farm F.C. (based in Whitehall), and many others both in Dublin and across the country.
So until the GAA start making their presence felt in places like Sheriff Street, East Wall and other areas of the inner city, it really has no business sniping at the Government’s decision to provide a bailout to the soccer community.
In whose interests will it serve to have grassroots soccer on its knees, particularly given its strength in working class communities and socially-deprived areas of Dublin’s inner city?
So while Martin Breheny might be right in saying that a €30 million bailout is no cause for celebration, there is also a bigger picture to consider. The GAA has not been shy in looking for financial assistance in the past, and the likes of Bertie Ahern was more than willing to welcome them into the Taoiseach’s office with open arms.
It was government assistance that set the ball rolling for Dublin GAA in the early-2000s, and paved the way for the unprecedented levels of success it has enjoyed over the past decade.
Gaelic Games has been riding a crest of a wave in recent years, and overall revenue of €63.5 million was declared in 2018. That is expected to rise to more than €70 million for 2019, given the fact that the All-Ireland Football Final went to a replay (not to mention the fact that stand tickets for the final were subjected to a price hike of €10, which brought it up to a whopping €90).
So in the grand scheme of things, is €30 million really that big a price to pay to save Irish soccer?
The stellar work of Sunday Times journalist Mark Tighe, seems to have finally laid bare the disgraceful levels of poor governance at the FAI. It has prompted a clear out of the old guard, as well as the demise of John Delaney, whose era at the helm of Irish soccer came crashing down in a torrent of shame.
But Irish soccer is bigger than John Delaney and the FAI. And if €30 million is the price it takes to keep the game viable in this country, then surely it’s a price worth paying.
Because no sport, with the possible exception of boxing, has been more active in working class communities and socially-deprived areas of the country than soccer has been. It deserves to be offered a ‘new era of hope’.