Cahair O’Kane: GAA more than pays its way so stop with the begging bowl narrative around Casement Park

Perhaps if Stormont had been in session for more than two of the last seven years, the cost of the west Belfast stadium would never have mushroomed anywhere close to what it now is

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that Northern Ireland is not moving towards a poll on Irish unity
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson No sooner had the Irish government pledged €50m to Casement Park's redevelopment than DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson had a statement out effectively saying more public money wouldn't be coming from the Northern Ireland executive. (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

WHEN The Loup wanted to put a new pitch in a few years ago to replace Derry football’s answer to the Ali Sami Yen, they did what most GAA clubs do and brought out a £20 ticket.

They had a three-for-two deal and their sellers got carte blanche. Be generous.

A child in the house? If the parents are buying, throw the child a free ticket.

It took off like a forest fire.

Their pitch would cost just over £1m.

Of that, they raised £432,000 from their £20 tickets.

It was sheer, bloody hard work – exhaustive evenings and weekends traipsing the whole of Ulster, groups of them.

“We were just counting it up, we think we knocked over 100,000 doors, from the Malone Road to the lakes of Fermanagh. It was absolutely fantastic,” said then club chairman Sean Corey in 2016.

A hundred thousand doors.

Loup have just over 200 adult members. There are roughly 40 families that live there.

See, here’s the thing. The idea that the GAA are standing at the doors of Westminster like Oliver Twist with his bowl has grown like a weed through the never-ending debate over Casement Park and to what level it should be funded by public money.

That has been fairly hard to take.

Casement Park will now cost over £200m, almost three times its original estimate of £77.5m.

When the Maze stadium was on the table, it was the DUP that turned away from it.

Now the institutions are back again, no sooner had Dublin ponied up €50m last week than Jeffrey Donaldson was out like the father of a child who hasn’t soles on his shoes or an arse in his trousers, admonishing the neighbours for taking pity.

“We cannot see how significant additional UK taxpayer resources will be available at a time when other vital public services are in need of additional resource and capital allocations,” wrote the DUP leader almost instantaneously.

This column tries really hard not to listen to Stephen Nolan, but sometimes it’s a professional necessity. If I have to hear him ask one more time this week how much money the GAA has and why it won’t tell us, I will throw a shoe at the TV.

Stephen, take out your phone. Open Google. Type in ‘GAA financial report 2024′. There it is, all 232 pages of it, every penny accounted for.

Contained within you will find the reason the GAA’s contribution of £15m is more than fair.

Last year, the GAA spent €25m on capital projects. The year before, it was €23m. For an organisation whose entire revenue last year was €112m, those are very significant sums.

Jarlath Burns began his three-year term as GAA president at Saturday's annual Congress in Newry. Picture by Sportsfile
GAA Congress Jarlath Burns has said he will not support the GAA increasing its £15m contribution to the proposed redevelopment of Casement Park. Picture by Sportsfile (SPORTSFILE)

They have ongoing redevelopment works in Navan, Thurles and Newbridge, new training centres to fund in Down and Longford and €15m worth of work to update Croke Park.

Unlike any other sporting body, the GAA effectively has its own insurance scheme for players. They pay a nominal fee and for that receive cover for all kinds of medical issues, right up to loss of wages.

While GAA clubs in the north almost universally own and maintain their own facilities, the majority of soccer clubs rely on council pitches they pay a small fee to rent.

How much is the IFA contributing to all these sub-regional soccer stadia that await investment?

If someone cuts down their goalposts, or spreads glass in the goalmouth, or does diffs in a Peugeot 306 on a council pitch, the taxpayer picks up that bill.

In more urban areas where grass pitches are at a greater premium, the disparity in the number of council soccer pitches to Gaelic pitches tells its own story about how public money has long been distributed.

Belfast City Council provides 107 grass soccer pitches and 16 for GAA.

A strategy document released by the council just over a decade ago said 38 new GAA pitches were needed. Five have been built.

East Belfast GAA continually have problems at the Henry Jones Playing Fields.

When the pitch had lines drawn on it so Gaelic football and hurling could be played alongside soccer, TUV candidate Anne Smyth said people were angry and talked about Rule 27, which was removed from the GAA’s rulebook in 1971.

Chris Donnelly has written in The Irish News in recent weeks of how, from a media perspective, everything still starts from a unionist viewpoint. He is absolutely right.

It is the same with public money. Sporting facilities are only the tip of an iceberg that does continue to melt, but very slowly.

In 1983, a report by the New Ireland Forum that was established by the Irish government found that northern Catholics had been “deprived of the means of social and economic development”.

Thirty years later, a peace-monitoring report by the Community Relations Council found that 80 per cent of the north’s most deprived wards were nationalist areas and 70 per cent of its least deprived areas were unionist-dominated.

Nationalists had gerrymandered boundaries, the denial of civil rights, the lack of employment opportunities and all those other things for generations after Ireland was partitioned just over a century ago.

Perhaps if Stormont had been in session for more than two of the last seven years, the cost of Casement Park would never have mushroomed anywhere close to what it now is.

Sinn Féin may well have been the first to step out and for that they are not blameless, but the £500m or so (we’ve never actually gotten to the bottom of that figure) that was blown by the DUP’s RHI scandal had to be dealt with in some way.

So let’s not present this as the big bad GAA standing begging for £100m and wonder how they might repay the exchequer for such a handout.

The GAA more than pays its own way financially and, even more so, societally.

Workmen at Casement Park GAA stadium in Belfast
Work men at Casement Park GAA stadium in Belfast. (Liam McBurney/PA)

Half the people in Ireland would be wee round dumplings if it wasn’t for the outlet it provides for almost 2,500 clubs the length and breadth of the island.

Casement Park is inextricably tied to the deadline for Euro 2028.

If it isn’t built on that schedule, it is highly unlikely it will ever be built. The British government aren’t going to fund a stadium that won’t be part of the Euros. The clock, in that sense, ticks.

But let there be no more debate about public money. Nationalists may not like who they pay their taxes to, but they pay them all the same.