23 May 2022

OPINION: Peaceful solution to O'Connor Park row possible if both sides have the will


OPINION: Peaceful solution to O'Connor Park row possible if both sides have the will

Tullamore GAA Club presents Paul Cullen from Hooves 4 Hospice with a donation on behalf of Tullamore GAA Club Bingo. L-r: Val Smyth, Seamus Reynolds, Brian Collins and Paul Cullen 

A PEACEFUL solution to the row over the O'Connor Park lease row is very possible if both sides want it, are willing to compromise and most importantly of all, show respect to each other.

The row has drifted on for a long time now. It erupted last year after the County Board withheld payment of some of their yearly lease fee to Tullamore GAA Club, citing loss of revenue from O'Connor Park due to Covid-19 shutdowns.

Since then, things have escalated badly out of control. Relations between the Offaly GAA County Board and Tullamore GAA Club have reached breaking point and it is not a healthy situation for anyone to be involved in.

Apart from the impact on Tullamore and Offaly GAA officers, it is not good for the county as a whole. It is not good to see the County Board and its biggest, single most important club on war footing – and while some people may argue that statement, Tullamore is in that category. It is Offaly's biggest population centre by far, it has player recruitment and retention issues that most other clubs don't face and a strong Tullamore is crucial for Offaly football and hurling.

Offaly GAA doesn't want or need a Dublin type “monster” to emerge, an all conquering, almost unbeatable force but it does need Tullamore winning occasional, regular championships, it does need them producing players at every level for county teams – in both hurling and football.

They should be working together but instead, the O'Connor Park row is producing a rift that is proving to be very difficult to heal.

Last week, it looked like breaking point had been reached. In their meeting pack for the September meeting of the Offaly GAA County Board, correspondence from Tullamore GAA Club and Offaly meeting minutes relating to the lease row were circulated to clubs.

It did not make for nice reading. It included an incendiary letter from Tullamore last July in which they basically said that they would not be budging on reviewing the lease and stressing that O'Connor Park is not for sale. They also accused the County Board of showing them “contempt and total lack of respect”, of being a “creditor defaulter, a bad debtor and in breach of a legal agreement with the club”.

It was not a letter designed to solve the impasse but it did reflect how angry Tullamore are and some of that is justified. Most worryingly, they also addressed what needs to happen if the County Board invoke the break clause in the 35 year lease agreement, which was signed back in 2002. They pointed out that the near €2 million debt on the O'Connor Park redevelopment will still be owned by the County Board and their clubs and they stated that as things stand, they would not be willing to enter into negotiations with the County Board about the future use of O'Connor Park if the lease is terminated.

It was provocative stuff and it is clear to all neutral observers that things have got badly out of hand between the two sides. Indeed, Tullamore claimed in the letter that they were told by Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan last May that the County Board were going to terminate the lease.

In personal discussions to various people about the issues, members from both sides had been engaging in positively dangerous talk. “We will hand it back to them, they can't handle O'Connor Park” was at least part of the County Board mantra. “We will take the keys back and lock the gates” would be a mild way of summing up some of what Tullamore GAA members were saying.

It was quite ludicrous talk by both but fortunately, things have rowed back since then and particularly in the past fortnight.

At a meeting of the Offaly GAA management committee on September 7, Michael Duignan stated that the County Board don't wish to exit O'Connor Park but wish to “mutually amend” elements of the current lease.

The language used by both sides is absolutely crucial at this stage of the dispute and incendiary statements by either will only increase the potential for termination – and that is an equal disaster for both the County Board and Tullamore GAA Club. O'Connor Park is the jewel in Offaly GAA's infrastructural crown, it is one of the top provincial venues in the country – an 18,000 capacity stadium with a 7,000 seater stand and it has hosted several major fixtures.

Offaly GAA needs O'Connor Park and it is too big for Tullamore GAA Club. No club could manage or run the ground without devoting huge energy and resources to it – this energy and resources is needed to promote football and hurling and Tullamore are making huge efforts at underage level. Offaly would still have to use O'Connor Park for their big home championship matches, county finals and other fixtures – and Tullamore would have the board at their mercy to some extent with this. An agreement would still have to be struck between the County Board and Tullamore GAA about its use, and by far the best option is for the ground to remain in the hands of the County Board.

The best option would be for the County Board to buy O'Connor Park. This would be the right option for the county, it would serve the greater good of Offaly GAA and it would almost certainly be facilitated and financed by Croke Park. It is also extremely unlikely to happen at the moment. The current Tullamore GAA officers have no appetite for going down this road and they don't want to be the people who sell a ground that plays such a cherished part in their club history.

And that is their right. It was developed by Tullamore GAA Club and it is still owned by them. The statement that the County Board don't want to exit O'Connor Park and want to “mutually amend” the lease is doubly important. It is significant in that it removes termination as a desire and a quick way out for the County Board while they also say that they want to change the lease by agreement and via discussion with Tullamore, rather than trying to force their hand – and backing them into a corner, where they will come out fighting from.

Tullamore GAA have also thrown out their own olive branch in the past fortnight. In a letter sent to the County Board on September 12, they repeated their stance that O'Connor Park is not for sale and that the lease agreement is “not for review as there is no provision in the lease for a review”.

Again, they address the possibility of termination and what needs to happen if the County Board choose this option. They end it, however, by adapting a more conciliatory tone than in most of their previous letters. They wrote: “It is Tullamore GAA's position that it will not consider entering discussions on any of the above issues until such time as: (i) Offaly GAA are compliant with the lease agreement, (ii) all outstanding monies due to Tullamore GAA are paid in full and (iii) Offaly GAA provide a written guarantee that rent payments going forward will be paid in accordance with the lease.”

Importantly, the Tullamore GAA Club also outlined the issues with the lease that were presented to them by Michael Duignan at a meeting on September 1:

1 – Rent reduction on O'Connor Park;

2 – Reducing/ceasing of access rights for use of O'Connor Park by Tullamore GAA;

3 – Terminate the need for Tullamore GAA's permission to hold events/concerts in O'Connor Park;

4 – Cease of reduce the payment of monies to Tullamore GAA as part of any future arrangements in regard to the renaming of O'Connor Park by a sponsor.

It is the first time in the dispute that the County Board's exact issues have been made public and it now gives both sides something to work with.

While Tullamore haven't said that they will enter negotiations about those issues, they have left the door open for it and it does look like both sides are now manoeuvring for a way out and a peaceful end to the dispute.

It is far from certain to happen, a lot of fraught, tense negotiations have to happen and termination is still a possibility but it does look like both are rowing back from that – and that is a very good thing.

There is a lot of hurt and anger on both sides. Tullamore GAA Club offered a €15,000 donation to the County Board earlier this year to help offset the impact of Covid-19 and this was refused by the board who said they couldn't accept it due to the “conditionality” of the offer. That has annoyed Tullamore GAA who offered it with good intentions and felt it was thrown back in their face.

The County Board made a grave error initially by withholding payment. That should never have been done and it forced Tullamore into a hard corner. Things have escalated since then, going downhill at an alarming rate.

Like any warring couple, they need to pull back from extreme talk and options. They need to forget what has happened, who said what and who behaved wrongly and unjustly. There is very much two of them in this dispute with rights and wrongs everywhere you examine it. The only thing that matters now is a peaceful solution and both sides have to give and take.

There are of course all sorts of red herrings in the dispute, lines being pedalled by members of both sides. The reality is that this dispute was never fully about loss of income and the state of County Board finances because of Covid-19. That may have brought things to a head but the County Board really want the lease changed and they are entitled to seek that.

The lease is a great deal for Tullamore GAA Club but not such a good deal for the County Board and the other forty clubs who make up the body and have to pay it. At the moment it gives Tullamore GAA Club a yearly fee of €56,000 plus and that is a huge legs up for any club. It really should give them a big advantage over all their competitors. It was, however, the agreement that was struck by the County Board in 2002 and any attempt to break this without agreement has to sit uncomfortably with the Offaly GAA community.

Tullamore, however, have a duty to the County Board, their fellow clubs and Offaly county teams. They are not a standalone unit, they are members of the County Board and they should be considering what is best for Offaly GAA as a whole.

Real leadership has to be provided from both sides to end it now. The County Board have to play the decisive, leading role. The difference between the sides can be compared to the Taoiseach of the country and the chairman of a County Council. They are very different levels and spheres obviously but you would expect the Government to provide leadership with all the counties under its jurisdiction and the same is true for a County Board with its clubs.

The real leadership must come from them but County Board, however, have come too far down the road now to concede on everything and revert to the status quo. That is still preferable to termination but there is a major onus on Tullamore to compromise and concede some ground. Tullamore are not winning the public relations battle among the wider GAA community in Offaly and a measure of compromise from them will put them onto higher ground.

The County Board issues give room for compromise all round. Both sides need to withdraw their horns and remove any personal antagonisms that may exist from the debate. Find the middle ground and treat each other with humanity, respect and genuine consideration of what the other side feels and sees – the basic bedrocks for any human relationship.

With a sale ruled out of the equation, the County Board can't get everything they want and Tullamore GAA Club should concede some things.

There are possibile solutions if the will is there. Tullamore's statement that they won't negotiate until the County Board is fully compliant with the lease agreement is fair and that needs to quickly happen.

A way out might be for the County Board to continue to pay the agreed lease fee, but perhaps not having it index linked.

The bit about reducing or ceasing access rights for use of O'Connor Park by Tullamore GAA Club won't be a breaking point. Tullamore have always had limited access since the lease was signed – they were given certain rights but the term “where possible” gave the County Board a way out and this was occasionally taken.

The County Board want to terminate the need for Tullamore GAA's permission to hold events/concerts in O'Connor Park and to cease or reduce the payment of monies to Tullamore GAA as part of any future arrangements in regard to the renaming of O'Connor Park by a sponsor.

When Bord na Mona were granted naming rights for O'Connor Park five years ago, Tullamore GAA Club had to approve it and they received a cut from the deal for doing so. That is very much a case of wanting to have your cake and eat it. The County Board are entitled to try to get those issues addressed and it is in these that the pathway out of this mess opens up.

If they could get a sponsor for O'Connor Park and hold concerts there, it would increase their financial take. Tullamore shouldn't have a veto on these things and neither should they be getting a percentage from them. It is really a no brainer when you examine it objectively but that doesn't mean that either side will see it this way.

There is now room for manoeuvre and it is in everybody's interest that it is grasped with both hands. History won't reflect well on either side if termination is the outcome.

Trivia corner

This week's answers are:

1 – Who were the first three brothers to play for Offaly in an All-Ireland hurling final?

Answer: The Cordial brothers from Kinnitty (1923 junior).

2 – Name the two Offaly men who won Railway Cup hurling medals in 1972?

Answer: Damian Martin and Barney Moylan, both St Rynagh's.

3 – Four teams from one parish have won Offaly senior football titles. Name the parish and the teams?

Answer: Killeigh parish Quarrymount, Geashill, Killeigh and St Mary's.

This week's questions are:

1 – How many trophies took up residence in Ferbane in 1972?

2 -When Fr Tom Gillooly was appointed Offaly senior football team manager in 1970, who were his three selectors?

3 – Who was the first man to be selected to play both football and hurling for Offaly?

Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.

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