GAA player grants were strenuously opposed by department officials
Documents indicate scale of disapproval - “no justification” for payments in current economic difficulties
Former minister for sport John O’Donoghue: proposed in 2007 to pay the GAA additional funds under the heading of ‘capital grants’. Photograph: Frank Miller
The scale of departmental opposition to the players’ grants scheme, introduced in 2008 after lobbying by the Gaelic Players Association with the support of the GAA, has come to light with the release of documents to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Acts.
Internal memos in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism variously urge the minister to terminate the scheme and criticise the GPA for alleged leaking of information to the media.
The scheme, which provides funding from the Irish Sports Council, was introduced to help to defray the expenses involved in being an inter-county player. It was formulated by the GPA in response to the 2002 scheme, which allows professional athletes on their retirement to reclaim tax paid.
Eventually the GAA agreed to support the campaign on condition that the funds would not be taken out of government grant allocations to the association but paid out under the aegis of the ISC, like payments to professional athletes.
There was controversy when the then Minister for Sport John O’Donoghue proposed in 2007 to pay the GAA additional funds under the heading of capital grants in order to ‘free up’ money to pay for the grants scheme.
A letter, dated 9th October 2007, to O’Donoghue’s successor after that year’s June general election, the late Séamus Brennan, from then GAA president Nickey Brennan is extremely critical of this proposal, accusing government of encouraging the GPA in their campaign.
“The matter was put on the agenda by different government representatives who perpetuated the concept as a genuine, potential prospect at various times. These representatives had intermittent interaction with the GPA and it is understood that informal commitments were given to that body at different times.
“The grants concept has been continuously blurred by your Department and Government sources through the creation of a proposed payment procedure which would be unique to the GAA. I refer to the proposal to associate payment of grants with capital or games development funding.”
The draft minutes of a meeting between the minister, department officials and the GAA eight days later states: “The minister referred to the letter that had been sent to him by the president several days previously. He suggested that it was “a bit steamy”. The president accepted that it was a strongly worded letter but that it reflected the depth of feeling within the GAA on this issue.
Ultimately the new minister was the one who resolved the issue, agreeing to earmark €3,500,000 for the ISC to fund the grants, and when an agreed schedule of vouched expenses was finalised after negotiations between the GAA, GPA and officials, it was put to the association’s annual congress in Sligo in April 2008.
There was however a delay in the grants being issued, which caused friction between the GPA and department officials, who held to the view that the disbursement was a matter for the Sports Council but who continued to be critical of the scheme. Eventually they were paid in December 2008.
A memo to the minister on 24th November that year from assistant secretary of the department Donagh Morgan described the grants as follows:
“So the reality of these schemes is that the taxpayer is being asked to fund mileage claims for amateur players to play their own sport.”
At the time the minister was already stating in public that the grants, like any other government expenditure, were likely to be cut in the coming year’s budgetary allocation.
Another memo from Morgan, on 16th February 2009, was blunt in its advice.
“There is no justification for continuing these schemes in a budgetary situation that is still getting worse. The Government has already been criticised for the cutbacks in many sensitive areas and persistence with these schemes would lead to further criticism.
“While there would be a negative reaction from the GPA if the schemes were discontinued they will not receive any public support in the current economic climate and such reaction is likely to be short-lived.”
The minister decided to maintain the scheme but reduced the funding to just over €1,000,000, a reduction initially rejected by the GPA but eventually accepted.
Some months later during the stand-off over the proposed reduction, in an e-mail, dated 29th June 2009, to department secretary general Con Haugh, Morgan wrote:
“Despite the agreement between the Minister and the CEO of the GPA (Dessie Farrell) the private discussions between the two parties were leaked to the media over the weekend. It demonstrates again that it is impossible to deal with these people privately . . . .”