Executive expected to give sporting clarity tomorrow
A MEETING of the Northern Ireland executive tomorrow is expected to give a clearer indication over when community sport may be able to return.
That is when the first of the four planned reviews of the executive's roadmap out of restrictions will take place.
It is expected that having roughly outlined the pathway to a return of community sport, dates for the particular stages of change may be forthcoming from tomorrow's meeting.
There had been quiet speculation that a return to outdoor activity could happen as early as the end of this week, but it's understood that is unlikely. It appears more likely to still be closer to early April.
However, unlike in the Republic, community sport is set for an early green light in the north where all outdoor sporting facilities and competitive games will be able to resume from the first step of easing restrictions, labelled the ‘Cautious First Steps'.
Case numbers and deaths are considerably lower than the rest of Ireland and with vaccinations progressing more quickly, the two jurisdictions find themselves at different levels.
No new deaths and 143 new cases were recorded in the north yesterday, while 16 lives were lost in the Republic, where the average number of daily cases has risen over the last five days, reaching 543 yesterday.
The Irish government has also had to suspend use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, adding to the problems already caused by the delayed rollout of the vaccine programme.
All of that means the gap between a return of community sport in the north and south could be widened rather than narrowed, leaving the GAA with a significant decision to make on how it moves forward.
Tyrone county chairman Mickey Kerr told today's Irish News that the GAA is “a 32-county organisation and it must stay united”.
Ulster GAA secretary Brian McAvoy said earlier this month that he anticipated the return dates would be “fairly consistent across the island, give or take a week or so”.
The first phase of relaxations in the north would allow for community sport to return in the form of outdoor competitive sport for adults behind closed doors, and outdoor sport for children with ‘accompanying responsible adults'.
A second phase would see indoor leisure centres, swimming pools and gyms reopened, as well as soft play and other indoor activities for children.
It will only be after that point that a limited number of spectators will be allowed to attend, with the final step – labelled ‘Future', perhaps giving an indication of a long-term timeframe – seeing a full return of capacity crowds at sporting events.
Hopes of increased attendances at GAA matches will have been dashed by the continually high number of cases in the Republic, a particular frustration given news that the UK government is set to allow 10,000 supporters to attend sporting events in May.
The FA is also looking at potentially hosting 20,000 spectators at the FA Cup final, but it seems unlikely that Ireland will be in a position to do the same by the early stages of the inter-county championships.
The GAA has already publically admitted that it will be hugely reliant on government funding to run this year's competitions, as it was in 2020, when the association recorded the worst financial year in its history.