Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Croke Park and Garrison Games

It's very hard to think of the Motions Committee of the GAA, who are meeting tonight to discuss what is and what is not infra dig with regard to Rule 42 of the GAA, without thinking of the 1991 movie Point Break. Not because Point Break was anything other than awful of course - who can think of either Keanu Reeves or Patrick Swayze without shouting "Timberrrr! at the top of one's lungs? - but because one of that movie's leitmotifs was a series of bank robberies perpetrated by a gang who wore facemasks depicting former presidents of the United States.

Not that the venerable gentlemen who sit on the Motions Committee would rob banks, of course - they are too well stricken in years to get up to what is blatantly a young man's caper, and Quinny is loaded anyway - but they do behave in a very strange fashion, and they do not take kindly to their machinations being exposed to the cold light of day.

Which is a pity. The GAA is a unique Irish success story, and its remarkable ability to keep on keeping on while persistently and repeatedly shooting itself in both feet is another achievement that is seldom replicated elsewhere. Consider the trauma and hand-wringing that's occurred over the rules changes in football, resulting in the current disastrous compromise that is neither one thing nor another - what could be more fundamental to a sporting organisation that ensuring that the rules stay in touch with the evolution of the game, and that everyone knows what is and what is not on? And yet the GAA arches and twists to try to accommodate all opinions, and ends up pleasing nobody. Somebody said once that a camel is a horse designed by committee - the GAA stables many, many camels.

Any organisation that has so much difficulty with quotidian discussions about relatively minor changes is inevitably doomed to visit the nine circles of Hell when it comes to making a decision as fundamental or as far-reaching as the proposed leasing of Croke Park to the IRFU and the FAI while Lansdowne Road is being redeveloped. This cuts to the heart of the GAA's very being; so much so, in fact, that certain parties long thought dormant are putting themselves about, having realised that so great a decision is not be chanced on a democratic whim.

J. Boothman, come on down.

It could be construed that the sudden vigour with which the Motions Committee are fine-tooth-combing the motions proposing the temporary leasing of Croke Park to the IRFU and the FAI hints at a body of opinion within the GAA that gives lie to the GAA's old boast about being a democracy, where a motion from the humblest junior club can change policy. Not if the Motions Committee don't like it, it won't. And this makes the situation even sadder, as the media reaches for the stereotype and the Hillbilly music.

Instead of an open debate certain parties within the GAA and perhaps on the Motions Committee itself seem determined to cut off debate at the pass, rather than thrashing out the issues like adults once and for all. The Irish, unfortunately, do not debate issues well, and for a number of reasons. The media debate about Rule 42, insofar as it has been a debate, has been both lazy and disingenuous. There is only one question that the GAA should be asking themselves about opening Croke Park up to the IRFU and the FAI and that question is: What's in it for me? Any other approach is naive in the extreme.

There has been talk in certain quarters that the GAA "owes" it to the country to allow international rugby and soccer games to be played in Croke Park. The GAA owes the country nothing - if anything, the country owes a considerable debt to the GAA, by whom I mean the anonymous men and women who mark pitches, wash jerseys, sell tickets, bring kids to games and do the thousand and one other things for which there is neither glamour nor thanks but without which the organisation folds, collapses and dies before next autumn. The country owes those poor eejits more than it will ever give them, and that is a fact. Anything else is errant nonsense.

There is another argument that claims that the GAA owes the government, the representative of the nation, because the government stumped up forty million Euro or so to finish the stadium. This is nonsense, of course. On the basis of giving young people somewhere to go in the evenings the Government owed the GAA that and in baby-sitting fees alone. Besides, I don't know of anyone who claimed any of the several building grants that were all over the place in the early nineties opening up their houses to other citizens free of charge because they "took Government money." I hear of very few of those.

Money is what it comes down to. International soccer has always been about money, International rugby now sees the dollar as the bottom line as much as soccer ever did. Therefore, the only reason that the GAA should consider renting Croke Park even for a moment is if they are getting pots and pots of money in return, money that they can use to further strengthen the association. Hurls don't come cheap, you know, and if you're going to bring hurling to non-hurling areas, you're going to get a lot of them smashed before anyone gets good at the ancient game.

There is only one true test of whether or not the GAA is getting enough money for the rental of Croke Park, and that is if Seán Kelly's opposite number in the FAI or IRFU is on TV bitching to Tony O'Donaghue about the price. Anything less, and they've sold for too little.

That established, that the only reason for renting Croke Park during the Lansdowne Road renovation is money and has nothing to do with some bizarre, spurious and unfounded sense of obligation to those great national institutions the FAI and the IRFU, there is one other major hurdle that the GAA has to cross before any deal can be signed, one that cuts right to the heart and ethos of the organisation.

It will come as news to the set who have found a Sunday in Croker an integral part of Summer in the City, 21st Century style, but Croke Park has been there for a long time before the current redevelopment. It was there on Sunday, November 21st, 192o, when fourteen people, between players and spectators, were shot dead by a combined force of RIC, the British Army and Auxiliaries.

The Hogan Stand is named after Michael Hogan, a Tipperary player who was shot and killed on November 2oth, 1920. A spectator who tried to say an Act of Contrition into Hogan's ear as he lay dying was also shot. One body was so riddled with bullets that the coroner thought he'd been bayoneted.

And that is the Hogan Stand that will host the English fans singing "Rule Britannia" should Ireland play England at soccer, something that hasn't happened since 1995, when the game was postponed after half an hour while those England fans rioted in Lansdowne Road. Are some things worth more than gold?

May God help the GAA in its tortured deliberations.