GAA Football

Kicking Out: Championship doubts a colossal failure of government

First Minister Arlene Foster and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who was taoiseach when lockdown began in March, pictured together earlier this year. Picture by Justin Kernoghan

AS the Irish government sat down last night to decide whether to move into level five lockdown, the GAA sat and waited.

At the time of writing, no decision had been made. Not that any government decision was likely to bring the curtain down on Gaelic Games.

This time yesterday, the GAA had no more clarification on the situation than any of the rest of us.

All they had was the recommendation of chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, that the GAA be given exempt status even in the event of a move to level five.

That appeared to have been contradicted last week by Leo Varadkar, who categorically stated that there would be no championship in the event of a total lockdown.

Every government in every country is currently making it up as they go along.

We’ve been very unlucky to have governments north and south who just happen to have done it particularly badly.

That we’re talking about a level five lockdown has become a GAA issue because it threatens to ensure that 2020 will be the first time in history no winner will be inscribed on the Sam Maguire or Liam MacCarthy Cups.

The government are very unlikely to shut the games down themselves because in terms of political point-scoring, it would bring serious backlash. Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael are in a great position to absorb the aftershock.

Of course the DUP would lock the gates and throw away the key up here, but Sinn Féin will most likely be forced to go against their better judgement and back the games going ahead.

Because as it stands, with restrictions tightening the length and breadth of Ireland, an inter-county championship has become a very hard thing to justify.

It will most likely be left to the GAA to make their own call. If they proceed with the games, public anger may turn on them. If they cancel them, it will probably be the same in reverse.

Dr Holohan’s recommendation may give them the piece of paper they need to proceed but public feeling could come to be overwhelming, especially given the recent outbreaks as a result of post-match celebrations.

Ultimately though all of this is ultimately a massive failure of government on both sides of the border.

In the last two weeks, crowds of 31,000 and 46,000 were present in Wellington and Auckland to watch Bledisloe Cup rugby games between New Zealand and Australia.

The Irish soccer team played in front of 8,000 supporters in Finland last week.

When an outbreak happened in the Qingdao area of China earlier this month, they tested nine million people in five days.

They had the same virus we have.

New Zealand is a small island with a few million of a population.

They have recorded just over 2,000 cases and 25 deaths in total since the pandemic began.

We’ve had almost 2,500 deaths and are now recording 2,000 cases per day across Ireland.

Per day.

New Zealand locked the whole country down hard and fast, and they effectively got rid of the virus.

Their economy took a swift hit but is expected to suffer less long-term damage than any almost every country the world over.

We could have been like them, a small island of a few million people, absorbing the kidney-punch of the immediate impact before recovering quickly.

We could have had crowds back out at games and people living lives with a sense of normality.

Instead, it has been shambolically handled here.

Seven months in, we’re back in lockdown, jobs are disappearing, money is tightening, the virus is more prevalent than ever, winter’s wintering, we’ve been trapped inside the entire time and for what? We’re further back than ever.

People are absolutely fatigued by ludicrous half-measures such as closing off licenses at 8pm. It’s a nocturnal virus I hear now, Father.

We’re being made to feel like we’re the pariahs for bringing the children to see their grandparents, but sure send them on to schools there and never worry about the 1,500 cases as a result, because we need the workers working to keep alive an economy we now have to shut down again because of the cases.

Elite sport, with people crisscrossing the country, can go ahead but Ballycran U12s aren’t allowed to train.

One restriction contradicts the other because it’s all half-measures.

It’s like a boat full of holes and the water is the virus. If you don’t close off all the holes, it will get in somewhere.

Sport is relief for body, mind and soul. The All-Irelands would be so gloriously cold, dark and damp.

It is on every sector of society to stop the spread of the virus but there’s only so much we can do.

Despite the recent spate out of outbreaks that have been linked back to the GAA, the actual playing of Gaelic games, the same as any sport, poses virtually no threat.

Three months on from the resumption of activity, 11 days out from championship, there is still no recorded case of transmission as a result of a GAA game anywhere in Ireland.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that playing the All-Ireland championships is safe.

The entourage of elements that come with the games brings risk that, in so many cases, is hard to justify.

Whether it’s congregating inside, the permitted use of changing rooms and showers, eating together or travelling together, there are parts that allowing make no real sense.

John Heslin (Westmeath) and Bevan Duffy (Louth) are about the only two inter-county players to put their heads above the parapet but the GPA’s survey proves that fear does exist within the playing ranks.

24 per cent of players told the GPA they are against the championships proceeding. That’s roughly 540 out of around 2,250.

The same number again are asking for better protocols to be put in place before it happens.

Those are very significant numbers. You have to question how the GPA could stand behind the championship if the improved protocols the players have asked for are not in place by the middle of next week.

The biggest issue is what happens socially when trophies start being given out.

Temptation to socialise will be hard to resist for supporters, whether it’s in bars (if they’re opened again) or worse, in homes.

Mayo set tongues wagging all over Ireland by carving up Galway. Are we really saying to the people of Mayo that if this is to be their time, they’re to sit in the house on their own?

That’s before you mention the players themselves, who are only human.

Problem is we can’t just decide which bridges to cross once we come to them.

If the GAA proceeds with a championship then these are the risks it is inviting.

Having an All-Ireland championship will bring joy to the weekends where there is precious little else at present.

It’s whether giving the nation something to watch and invest in is justified above providing the temptation to have gatherings that we know will cause a spread in infections.

On the whole, it probably isn’t.

If they don’t happen, it will have been a colossal failure of government.

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