Falling at the first fence: the RDS and a PR own goal for the GAA
Decision to stop Dublin sharing a double bill with soccer tie exposed sharp divisions
The RDS has become associated in the public mind with the Leinster rugby team. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
There are remarkably few traces of the whole business left. The RDS grounds in Dublin’s Ballsbridge are now firmly associated in the public mind with the Leinster rugby team, which plays most of its matches there.
Twenty-five years ago this week, 15th December, the venue was however at the centre of a major controversy within the GAA and indirectly between the Association and League of Ireland soccer club Shamrock Rovers.
Its beginnings were low-key.
Ringsend GAA club Clanna Gael-Fontenoy had an idea for a fund-raiser: to stage an inter-county match in Dublin 4.
Looking around for a suitable venue the original choice, Shelbourne Park, was ruled out.
Club officials then settled upon the idea of a double bill at the RDS – including a League of Ireland soccer fixture between Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers, then tenants in the Ballsbridge arena.
The inter-county match would feature league holders Dublin and All-Ireland champions Down.
Dublin had been central to the big story of the early summer when their first round Leinster championship fixture – in the first year of the province’s open draw – against Meath had gone to four matches.
“We were mad to play it,” says Tom Carr, then captain of Dublin.
“We thought it was a bit of a novelty and a bit of a craic. At the time we thought it was going to go ahead and it had got the green light. There was a good bit of talk about it in public and amongst ourselves.
“At one stage there was a suggestion that it might have go 13-a-side because the soccer pitch wouldn’t be big enough and we were chatting about who’d get left out.
In the event the game never happened because the GAA withdrew permission for it to go ahead.
That would have been contentious enough but the manner in which the verdict switched from approval to speculation to withdrawal of permission and back again meant that an embarrassing melodrama played out for about a month before the game’s scheduled date, December 15th 1991.
Painstakingly Clanna Gael pieced together the logistics.
Shamrock Rovers were approached and agreed to the double bill. Both Dublin and Down county boards accepted the invitation and club PRO Michael Fitzgerald approached the GAA president Peter Quinn, then eight months in office.
At the time the club believed the president was unhappy with the proposal but Quinn’s view was that the matter needed to go through the proper channels.
Twenty-five years ago that meant the Games Administration Committee. They declined to sanction the match as the RDS wasn’t a ground vested in the GAA.
The GAA’s Management Committee intervened to rule in the circumstances that the vested ground argument (which was never absolute) didn’t have to apply.
Instead a list of strict conditions were imposed on the fixture – some, unrealistic and none of them actually necessary under the rules. There had to be confirmation the RDS wasn’t available for any other date and the double bill had to be promoted as a GAA event with the revenues to be handled exclusively by the Dublin GAA.
The feeling was growing that at Croke Park level the GAA didn’t really want the match to go ahead.
Sure enough, after reservations had been expressed at county board level in Down, Dublin officials were quizzed about the arrangements and although they assured everyone that everything was in order some loose ends began to unravel.
To cut a long narrative back to essentials, the GAA’s Central Council pulled the plug on the event and the clock ticked towards the inevitable eruption of controversy and bad publicity for the association.
Danny Lynch, then three years into his role as GAA PRO, remembers the fall-out vividly.
He had counselled against cancelling the promotion and then got left with the task of explaining the outcome to a disapproving public.
“I remember saying to Peter Quinn that from a PR perspective this is the wrong thing to do. Your presidency will be remembered for this and nothing else.”
Quinn would later argue that if a decision is correct, PR considerations become irrelevant. He also made a point of attending the Dublin GAA convention some weeks later.
For Lynch the task of representing the decision remains a low point in his Croke Park career.
“It was the only the only time it crossed my mind to walk away from the job. How can you manage public relations in a place where policy fluctuates on a daily basis without any corporate direction? How do you convince journalists and the public about the merits of something that is completely illogical?”
Worse was to follow for Lynch. Not alone was he the boy on the burning deck as the controversy raged but in some GAA quarters he was all but accused of starting the fire.
At one county convention delegates complained about the “poor media handling” of the affair by “highly paid professionals in Croke Park”.
“I was deeply unhappy,” says Lynch “that the slings and arrows had been pointed at me for not defending an indefensible decision. I told Management [Committee] at the next meeting that no PR practitioner can articulate a policy in those circumstances; three separate changes of decision in the space of 10 days. I remember Fr Dan Gallogly [member of Management] saying that I was owed an apology.
“On RTÉ, some fella in the audience said it was all my fault and that ‘Danny Lynch should be sacked’. John Bowman in fairness said: ‘Well. He’s doing a very difficult job at the moment’.
“I still have pretty sour memories of that. People who took the decision didn’t take responsibility for it.”
Most worryingly for the GAA was the sharp division the RDS affair illustrated in attitudes north and south of the border.
Quinn was angry at the time, especially about the intervention of the late Jack Lynch, then a former Taoiseach, who had expressed “bitter disappointment” over the RDS decision.
Privately Quinn asked why Lynch had said nothing about the burning down of three GAA clubhouses in Co Down.
A newspaper poll indicated 88 per cent of respondents in the Republic had condemned the GAA for the decision whereas 84 per cent in the North had supported it.
In 1991 Seán McAteer was Down PRO, a post he again holds. He remembers the controversy as an unfortunate postscript to a memorable year in which the county became the first from outside Munster or Leinster in 23 years to win the football All-Ireland.
“I had my ’paper shop at the time and I remember one morning, opening up the shop and bringing in the newspapers and this man was standing there. I didn’t know who he was from Adam. He says, ‘are you Seán Óg?’ and I said, ‘I am’.
“So he then says, ‘I just wanted to tell you that youse are an absolute disgrace for not playing that match!’ He was a local but from the South originally.”
He says that there had been queasiness in Down about the promotion.
“There was a real concern that you were being used, potentially, and we weren’t comfortable with that. It was felt that there was an agenda that we weren’t a party to; it was someone else’s. We wouldn’t have been comfortable with it – full stop.
“We’re 25 years farther down the road but at that stage there was still too much happening in 1991. It was too early even in terms of the GAA in general, a different time. Even our homecoming into Newry that night [All-Ireland homecoming] had to be diverted because of a bomb alert and the bus was stoned along the way.
“I remember on the Tuesday night when we were coming down from Belfast to tour the east of the county and one of the local officials got rather lubricated and when we were coming down into Ballinahinch on the top of the bus and on one of the corners there were all these Ulster loyalist flags and he says, ‘look, look – Tyrone supporters,’ because of the red hand!”
“Those things were still raw. Players were being stopped at checkpoints and clubs harassed. We were in a very different world from Clanna Gael.”
A quarter of a century later all worlds have changed. The GAA has agreed to make its grounds available for Ireland’s 2023 RWC bid and Gaelic games in south Dublin are thriving. Northern Ireland is a different place.
Danny Lynch says that the RDS represented a PR disaster so bad that it could never happen again.
“It won’t – or I’d be surprised. All those issues are dead: foreign games, the ban on the RUC and the opening up of Croke Park. Gone,” he concluded.