Government action unnecessary as GAA never intended to resume play

Irony is that the Covid Advisory Group decided against any resumption last week

Any start to the GAA season has been put on hold indefinitely. Photo: Inpho

Any start to the GAA season has been put on hold indefinitely. Photo: Inpho

 

The GAA hit the airwaves on Thursday but anyone expecting friction would have been disappointed. From early morning until the evening, a succession of senior association figures accepted with studied equanimity the withdrawal of Gaelic games’ Level 5 exemption status.

The irony of the whole episode is that the GAA never exhibited any intention of returning to play in the near future. Its Covid Advisory Group had decided a week ago that any immediate resumption of activities would be “irresponsible”.

One of the group’s most influential members Professor Mary Horgan emphatically told RTÉ News on Thursday evening that she had no issue with the withdrawal of the exemption.

“I agree with the Government’s move. The priority is to get the schools and construction open. What would need to happen is that the numbers of infection on a daily rate in the community would need to be a lot lower.”

The more interesting focus was on the Government side, as the explanations of why the action had been taken were at times unconvincing. It was left to Alan Milton, the GAA director of communications, to give as good a reason as any for the move, which defers the return to play until April at the earliest.

Flexibility

“I think the Government are dealing with a different scenario at the moment in terms of different strains and the rates out there. It’s a disappointment, yes, but we’re going to have to knuckle down and show some of the flexibility we showed in 2020, facing into 2021,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Wednesday evening’s announcement that the exemption had been removed and the return of activities suspended came as a bit of a shock.

It felt the following day, though, as if the Government, starting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin also on Morning Ireland, and followed by Minister of State for Sport, Jack Chambers, on Today with Claire Byrne were fraying the picture around the edges by reference to the upcoming revision of the ‘Living with Covid’ document and apparently holding out hope of a relatively swift review of the games’ status.

There were other unusual aspects of the official explanation. Firstly the suggestion that the exemption for Gaelic games had been granted only for the duration of the 2020 intercounty season and expired after the All-Ireland finals in December.

For a start, the GAA was unaware that the exemption was being revoked or not renewed - as evident by the launch of a draft fixtures calendar on December 21st - until informed by Government after sending out an update to county boards last week.

According to the minister: “The GAA didn’t request a concession in January or February when we met them. In fact they were clear that there wasn’t a massive appetite to return in the immediate term.”

It must have been clear to the Department of Sport and its advisers, however, that the association was unaware of this requirement when discussing their plans.

As the new categorisation is founded in a statutory instrument (SI 701/2020) that came into operation on December 31st, it might have been an idea to inform the affected parties.

This is the same instrument that the Examiner newspaper pointed out effectively rules out Sunday’s rugby international against France even though the poor drafting won’t prevent the Six Nations match going ahead.

Furthermore, when Cork footballers were accused of breaching rules by organising a collective session outside of the approved window opening in mid-January, their defence was that they had observed Government Covid guidelines for training.

This was irrelevant to whether the GAA rulebook had been breached but was there an official approach to Croke Park to point out that there was, in fact, no longer any right under public regulation for such gatherings to take place?

Primary reason

Other contributions on the subject included the Minister talking about professional sport in the context of why League of Ireland soccer could go ahead and Gaelic games, as amateur, couldn’t.

GAA president John Horan added to this by stating on RTÉ that the primary reason that activities had to halt was that county teams weren’t able to “operate in a bubble” and that the minister had told him, “the present elite status categorised was those sports that could operate within a bubble”.

This hadn’t been a requirement of the exemption in 2020.

The apparent exclusion of Gaelic games players from the ‘elite players’ category created other difficulties with the Gaelic Players Association seeking and receiving assurances from the Department that “There has been no change to the status of intercounty games, nor the high regard in which it is held.”

It’s not clear why Government felt the need to conduct itself in this manner. The GAA had regulated itself by postponing the resumption of its intercounty season and acknowledging that activities wouldn’t restart while Covid numbers were high and schools closed.

That they would ignore public advice on when to green-light training and start the season isn’t credible. In other words the situation wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed.

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