Off the fence and off the pitch

Sat, Aug 14, 2010, 01:00

After years of talk, the GAA has decided to erect a fence in front of Croke Park’s Hill 16 to prevent the pitch invasions it considers dangerous. But opponents of the move are taking heart from the Government’s refusal to legislate

IT IS for some within the GAA one of the great traditions of All-Ireland final day: the jubilant dash on to the pitch at the final whistle and the gathering of the successful county’s supporters in a throng below the presentation in the Hogan Stand. For others, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Having preached about the dangers of this practice for the past two seasons, the GAA is now going to do something practical about it. A fence is to be erected in front of the Hill 16 terrace – the area where pitch invasions have been observed to originate – in time for next month’s football and hurling finals.

Opponents of the decision dismiss the safety concerns as alarmist and motivated by financial considerations (the cost of settling claims by those injured during pitch invasions runs into six figures annually). They believe that the re-installation of fencing for the first time in nine years is more dangerous than the problem it addresses.

The GAA’s concerns relate to the onrush of spectators, the crushing on the pitch (which, unmodified, is certified safe for just 15,000 people at concerts) and the spill-over exiting through routes different from the ones used when entering the ground.

Supt Seán Ward, of Fitzgibbon Street Garda Station, who heads the Garda operations on match days, says that the fears are not exaggerated. “Those of us who are members of GAA clubs ourselves fully understand the impact winning an All-Ireland has for any county supporter, but it would be a disaster were anyone to be severely injured or killed as a result of pitch invasion,” he says. “Every big match we work with everyone else to control the event, eliminate pressure and make approaching and entering the ground easy and safe for everyone. Most days, crowds also leave in a safe and structured way with the help of gardaí and stewards.

“Then at the end of the All-Irelands you have a completely uncontrolled scenario when people rush on to the pitch, over barriers, pushing each other out of the way, tripping up and it’s easy to see the very real possibility that someone can fall.

“The situation outside the ground impacts on access to emergency vehicles. We have had a scenario where a man had a heart attack and an emergency vehicle was able to get to him, but if we had a situation where the road was completely crowded by people, that couldn’t have happened. And I’ve been stationed on Jones’s Road where people have been looking at me and saying, ‘we just can’t move here’.”

One solution the GAA had been considering was ruled out during the week when the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Mary Hanafin, announced that she was opposed to bringing forward legislation to outlaw pitch invasions, which would bring Ireland into line with countries such as Australia and the US. This came as a surprise to officials at Croke Park, in that it was the first they had heard from the Minister, apart from an acknowledgement of a letter sent after scenes of disorder at the Leinster final, during which the match referee was assaulted. The letter sought to discuss the possibility of introducing legislation.

For opponents of the plan to fence the Hill, the Government rebuff was seen as a victory. A realistic reading of Hanafin’s comments, though, would indicate an attitude of not wanting to get involved rather than a denial of the seriousness of the situation, which she appeared to accept.

The Minister also made a point that must have struck home uncomfortably at Croke Park. “It is enforceable within the IRFU – they don’t have the problem and the FAI don’t have the problem . . . If two of the major sports in the country can do it, I can’t see why the third can’t do it.”

Contrary to certain perceptions, the Taylor report in England, commissioned after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, did not recommend the abolition of perimeter fencing but the prohibition of spikes on top and the restriction of its height to 2.2 metres (60cm lower than the proposed fencing in Croke Park, although in the context of all-seated stadia).

A similar report commissioned in Ireland and chaired by the late chief justice Liam Hamilton, issued recommendations that led to the 1996 Code of Practice for Safety at Sports Grounds. Among the report’s findings was that there was no reason why terracing should not be as safe as seated accommodation. Beyond noting that “pitch barrier fences are usually associated with standing areas” and observing that the “necessity for a pitch barrier fence will depend on individual circumstances, such as the danger of pitch invasions and other disorder”, the report made no recommendations on the restriction of such fencing.

Supt Ward says that he has no issues with the erection of fences which satisfy public safety standards, and warns about the dangers of the current situation. “If somebody dies in a pitch invasion there’ll never be a pitch invasion again and a great day for some county winning an All-Ireland would become known forever as the final when something terrible happened as a result of a pitch invasion. Does anyone want that?”