GAA awaiting plans for crowds as fans set to return in North

Association awaiting Government direction as attendance restrictions ease in the North

The GAA are conscious of the potential conflict of information regarding match attendances in the coming weeks.

With the Northern Ireland Executive clearing the way for limited attendances beginning this Friday, with 1,000 fans being allowed into the Irish Cup final between Larne and Linfield, it's unclear what will happen with the remaining Allianz League and upcoming Ulster Championship matches being staged within the six counties.

In the meantime, the GAA are still awaiting a potential date from the Irish Government as to when they, like all the other field sports, will be allowed resume match attendances, even if in a strictly limited capacity for the time being.

Last autumn, when limited attendances were allowed at Ulster club matches being staged within the six counties, the GAA abided by the Irish Government directive when it came to all league and championship fixtures, where no attendances were permitted: the matter, according to GAA director of communications Alan Milton, will likely be addressed in the coming days.

“That is a decision coming down the tracks, for the GAA, and it hasn’t been taken yet,” he said. “Some might say why wouldn’t you facilitate some spectators in the north, if they’re allowed? It’s certainly likely to happen at club level, it might be different at county level.

“We’ve got six counties in the Ulster championship, under it (Northern Ireland) and three counties from outside. So the sooner we can get things aligned, get some clarity on it, the better for everyone. We’re not in control of what happens here, we have to wait on whatever directive comes from the Government.

"There is the working group (chaired by Martin Murphy of the Aviva Stadium), with Peter McKenna representing the GAA, and there was that document produced, last year, looking at 10 per cent capacity, 25 per cent, 50 per cent, and how we would go about it, and how we could facilitate that number.

“There is nothing in any of the roadmaps at this stage that point to lifting of the restrictions around match attendances, or numbers, like there is around some indoor gatherings.

‘Different stewarding’

“What we’d be doing as well is limiting certain areas in the stadium where people might be congregating. And if we’re only letting 50 people into an area that might seat 500, that means different stewarding too. It will certainly be different for the rest of this year. We’ve been in a stage of readiness to get crowds back for a long time, only the numbers were where they were. It’s looking more hopeful now.”

Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh have home games in the Allianz Football League on May 29th, and under the Northern Ireland directive, would be allowed to have 500 in attendance. As well as 1,000 supporters being allowed to attend Friday's Irish Cup final between Larne and Linfield, up to 500 people can attend outdoor sports events as spectators from an indicative date of May 24th.

The Cup final at Mourneview Park will be used as a test event "to inform the future safe return of spectators to large scale venues". Spectators, teams and staff will be required to take a Covid test before and after the match, with proof of a negative result to be provided on arrival; social distancing measures will be in place and no food or beverages will be served at the game.

It's expected 500 fans can attend all Irish League matches from May 24th, as well as Ulster's Rainbow Cup game against Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, May 29th. The British and Irish Lions have also confirmed next month's match against Japan at Murrayfield will feature a restricted crowd of 16,500 supporters – the biggest attendance for a rugby match in the UK in 16 months.

Part of the Government concern at this point isn’t just the numbers inside the stadium, but how they access it, where they congregate before and after, and also the use of or need for any public transport. The GAA are also working with the Government to plan a “test event” before perhaps opening to wider attendances.

‘Vaccine passport’

“If it starts at say 500, you’re really only talking about tickets for the players and their families. What the Government have asked us at this stage is to make them aware of any fixtures that might be deemed appropriate for such a test event, and we’re in the process of doing that now, bringing that back to them.

“We’ve seen what’s happening in the UK, with outdoor sports, and concerts, but there are different methods. For concerts people were tested in advance, and we don’t envisage any desire or recourse to use a vaccine passport, say.”

Speaking on Newstalk earlier this month, Taoiseach Micheal Martin pointed towards July as the likely return date for any spectators at outside sports events.

"We would hope to do it this summer, we're going to trial a number of events," he said. "We've had the Professor Mark Ferguson report on antigen testing. We have the vaccinations. So we will be trialling some events. I think you're probably looking at July. Government are working out plans now and over the next number of weeks towards that end."

Milton said the GAA were certainly hopeful of having some spectators at the All-Ireland finals in August: “We’re certainly hopeful of having some crowds back before then, we just don’t know when, or how large the numbers might be. I think we’ve put a strong case forward that we will be able to safely facilitate crowds, once the Government gives us the green light to do so, but it’s up to them to tell us when it’s appropriate, and I expect that tied in closely with the vaccination roll out.”

The sooner the crowds are back, the sooner the need for Government support is also lifted. “Again, the conversation is ongoing around that. If we had say 30,000 or 40,000 people at our All-Ireland finals, that’s considerably helpful to the financial income, and the predicament we currently find ourselves. Between league and championship, there will be headline games from this weekend up until the end of August.”