The GAA in recent days has come under fire from angry members of the public for continuing to press ahead with the inter-county season which has re-started this weekend following a 7 month delay.
As part of both the level 3 and level 4 restrictions which were announced as part of a five level plan in mid-September, there was provision made to allow elite sport to continue. This elite sport includes all professional sports, plus inter-county GAA activity, which is clearly the elite level of Gaelic Games.
It is important to highlight that, contrary to the belief of some, the GAA have not been given any particular special status as compared with any other sport. All sports are on an equal footing with regard to these regulations.
The reason of course that the GAA will bear the brunt of the criticism is due to its presence in almost every parish in the country.
But when the facts are examined, perhaps we will see that most of this criticism is totally unwarranted.
It is important to note that at all stages during this pandemic the GAA has taken a more cautious approach to the regulations than the Government allowed.
Some examples of this are:
- The GAA, on its own initiative, called a halt to all activities and ordered all clubs to close on March 12th, without ever being asked to do so by government. It was not until March 24th that government ordered clubs to close and sporting events to cease. So the GAA were 12 days ahead in doing this.
- During the phase of the strongest levels of restrictions, it was local GAA clubs who stepped up to help the elderly and the vulnerable in their communities, organising rotas for shopping for food and volunteering to collect prescriptions for others.
- In the government’s roadmap for re-opening business and society, GAA clubs were permitted to re-open and resume non-contact training in phase 2 on June 8th. However, the GAA decided not to allow clubs to resume training on this date. In fact, it was only on June 24th that the GAA decided to allow clubs back training, 16 days after the government had permitted it.
- In addition to delaying the re-opening of GAA clubs, the GAA also insisted that every person involved with the team, must complete the online e-learning module prior to being permitted to return to train. This was not something ordered by the government, this was an extra step put in place by the GAA to ensure that everyone was aware of what was expected of them.
- When government permitted the re-opening of gyms, the GAA maintained a ban on GAA club gyms from re-opening. GAA club gyms have not been allowed to re-open at any time since March 12th, even though the government has permitted gyms to be open since late July. Again, an example of the GAA taking a cautious approach.
- The most recent example of this caution only 12 days ago when the GAA called a halt to all club activity on October 5th. It was not until October 7th that the government’s ban on club activity came into force. So again we see that the GAA was pro-active in its response.
Much of the criticism in the last two weeks of course, particularly in Co.Wexford, has been focused on virus clusters forming within GAA teams/clubs, which appear to have been linked back to post-match celebrations/commiserations.
It is true that there have been outbreaks of the virus affecting many GAA players in the last 2 weeks, most significantly in the Gorey district. Two teams from that district involved in county finals on the weekend of October 3rd/4th, Naomh Eanna and Castletown, have had cases discovered since. Interestingly there have been no cases reported in either of the two clubs they played against in those finals. Nor have those outbreaks been linked to Gaelic games activities.
It is imperative to highlight the responsibility of the GAA is to ensure that GAA grounds/facilities are safe, that regulations are adhered to and that clubs are putting in place the required safety precautions, and sticking to them.
However, it is not the role or the responsibility of the GAA to police activities in public houses, or in restaurants, or in cinemas, or anywhere else where people might socialise. If clusters develop in any of these settings, it is hardly the fault of the GAA.
Some Co.Wexford GAA clubs suspended activities for a few days on occasion during the summer/autumn. This was usually either due to a case being discovered amongst a member, or due to a number of members waiting test results having been close contacts of a case elsewhere. Suspending activities for a whole club was not required under government or GAA regulations, but many clubs decided to take the cautious approach and suspend activities for a number of days. This was above and beyond what was required.
To the best of my knowledge, not one of the closures was caused by the virus being transmitted as a result of GAA activities. They were cases where people contracted the virus in work, or in a house gathering etc, and due to the stringent measures which were in place in each GAA club, none of the cases resulted in clusters forming within GAA teams, evidence that GAA matches did not contribute to spreading the virus or the recent spike in cases in Co. Wexford.
Interestingly RTE’s Health correspondent, Fergal Bowers, reported on Thursday that there were a TOTAL of only 9 clusters associated with sporting activity. To put that in the context of thousands of teams across the country, thousands of clubs, millions of training sessions and thousands of matches, to have only 9 clusters forming as a result of sporting activity is an absolutely tiny number.
I must of course point out that much of the criticism of the GAA I have seen in recent days has come from people who may never have set foot in their local GAA pitch, or at least very seldom.
My experience of the GAA in Covid-19 times is perhaps unique. I am currently the Chairman of a GAA Club, I am a player, I am a team manager , I am an umpire and I commentate on live streams of games.
I have been at 94 matches in the 97 days in which club matches took place, from 29th of June to 4th of October). I would suggest that there is no one else in the world that has been fortunate enough to attend as many GAA games as I have since June 29th. As a result, I believe I am in a fantastic position to be able to give informed insight of how well the GAA has performed in terms of administration and logistics in managing to re-start our games. It hasn’t been flawless. I don’t think any organisation’s response to Covid-19 has been flawless, but there has been no stone left unturned to try and make it as flawless as possible. The low number of clusters associated with sporting activity in Ireland highlights both the low risk nature of outdoor sport and the great work which has gone into the whole thing by volunteers across the country.
The other accusation that is regularly levelled at the GAA by ignorant commentators is that it is all money driven, or the Grab All Association which it is sometimes called.
I will state only from my own experience as chairman of a GAA club – we have hundreds of people involved in our club, from players, committee members, coaches, parents, children, non-playing members.
None of them go up to our pitch for money, they don’t travel with their children to the opposite end of the county for money, people don’t volunteer to serve on committees for money, people don’t spend hours sorting out ticket allocations for money.
They do it because it brings such enjoyment to people. I challenge anyone who accuses the GAA of being money orientated, to spend a few evenings a week helping out in their local club and I’d expect them to have a different view. Yes of course money is needed, the fabulous facilities your local GAA club has, came via some hardworking fundraisers and generous donors, many of whom may not have lived to see the results of their work and foresight.
I am delighted to see the inter-county action restart. There is no evidence to suggest that it is going to cause spikes in our Covid-19 cases. Outdoor sporting activity is very low risk as the previous 4 months have shown.
I expect it will also provide some light relief to people to be able to watch matches on the TV or listen on the local radio during these dull, dark evenings when we are all told to stay at home. It will bring a sense of normality and comfort to many people who are finding these times tough. We need some entertainment and best of luck to all of those who will be providing the entertainment over the course of the next few weeks.
Hopefully the government see it this way and allow it to continue. In fact, it is my belief that all sporting activity should be allowed to continue, due to the obvious health benefits that sport and exercise has. During a time when public health is under great scrutiny, surely encouraging people to live healthier lives should be at the forefront of any long-term strategy. This starts by encouraging people to exercise and play sport, not by banning it.