“It’s like the children have disappeared”.

 

Aidan O’Rourke is pulling no punches. The lockdown of children’s sports, he says, is causing “disappearing personalities, children withdrawing entirely within themselves, right up to severe mental health, self-harm.”

The GAA All-star recognises that sport might not “be a silver bullet to stop all that” but says the negative effect of the restrictions “could have been alleviated at least to some extent by giving them the structure of sport.”

He told the Irish Times he’s speaking out “because these kids needed a voice” and asserts that the national sporting bodies aren’t making children’s sport a priority. “There is a broad brush of regulation here that is punishing our children when they badly need our support,” he says.

O’Rourke was one of an impressive array of sports people in the north who wrote to the Stormont First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill putting the case for a re-opening of outdoor youth sports.

The signatories included rugby international Rory Best, Tyrone’s 2003 All Ireland winning captain Peter Canavan, Shirley McKay of the Irish hockey team, and Stuart Dallas who is on the Northern Ireland soccer team.

The letter refers to the “frustration and increasing anger as families watch their children suffer physically and mentally on a daily basis, whilst children in other jurisdictions are cherished and nurtured.” Fundamental to their argument for allowing outdoor sports is that “there are no confirmed transmissions of Covid 19 through participation in outdoor sport” – and that other countries have safely opened up sports for youngsters.

O’Rourke is currently a coach – and a hero, along with his brother Cathal, of the 2002 Armagh All Ireland football winning team. This week, he followed up on that letter with strong criticism of the GAA which has acquiesced in the ongoing closure of the sports it has responsibility for.

In my view, the GAA has supinely accepted the Government decision that the GAA inter-county competitions remain banned – even while the international rugby team and the FAI League of Ireland are allowed to proceed. Minister Jack Chambers justified the arbitrary distinction on the basis that the FAI is responsible for several hundred professional sports people.

Well, the GAA employs a multiple of people; some 10,000 people in all, and many are coaches involved in the training of children. Or at least they would be if youth sports and the schools were not still closed down. In any event – and apart altogether from the much greater popularity of the GAA leagues compared to the League of Ireland – the FAI exemption makes no difference whatsoever to the many thousands of children who play soccer. Most GAA and soccer people would gladly swap the inter county leagues or the LOI for a re-opening of their clubs. The same, I am certain, applies to most people involved in rugby.

O’Rourke refers to “a generation of kids who have no school to go to,” and that even if that continues that at least sport might have provided, or might still provide, a healthy outlet for their energies as opposed to their being under virtual house arrest with no social contacts and confined to ubiquitous social media for any development of their energies and imaginations. Which is not always a good thing.

As O’Rourke and others have stressed, there are many countries in Europe that have allowed youth sport to continue even in the midst of the panic. The rationale for this has nothing to do with “Covid denial” but simply the fact that “They recognise it’s safe. They looked at the science.”

As he says, the GAA has “a much more powerful platform than we do writing a letter.” He implies that their failure to do so, as evidenced by their cowardly response to the decree on the national football and hurling leagues, is directly linked to the bureaucracy’s fear of endangering funding. Being in receipt of public money has notably not prevented others shouting the loudest and with minimal community involvement or benefit as compared to the GAA, FAI or any other youth sport or recreational organisation.

The GAA’s stance is a disgrace, let us not beat around the bush here. All through this they have listened more to state broadcasters with an evident dislike of “the gah” than to the bulk of its own members who have not even been consulted on any of this. One RTÉ agitator even organised a poll in an attempt to stop last year’s inter county championship. I don’t listen to any of them, but I would safely wager that the same people did not say one word against the Six Nations rugby going ahead.

There is no reason why international rugby ought not go ahead, nor that the League of Ireland does not start again. So there is no reason why the GAA inter county season ought not proceed. Most of all, however, there is no reason why any outdoor sport should continue to be banned – even if that only applies to children who are at minimal risk from the virus.

Normally at this time of the year the roads around where I live would have children in their Erin’s Isle and Finglas Celtic tops carrying footballs and hurleys to and from training as the games begin again. Traffic and small dogs might be somewhat inconvenienced when the lessons of training are practised on the streets. Now it is as though all the children have disappeared.

Those responsible for this lockdown of the young carry a heavy burden. Among them full-time officials of some unions staffed by people almost none of whom have ever stood in front of a classroom. Left wing activists who regard teachers as part of a “fighting formation” that has damn all to do with what teachers are meant to be about which is not pursuing some ultra-leftist fantasy, but teaching. And the same activists make it sound as if returning to their jobs is on a par with having to go and live in a leper colony.

As for the GAA. We are in the midst of the much talked about Decade of Centenaries. One of them was a day known as Gaelic Sunday August 4, 1918 when the GAA defied the British military ban on gaelic sports to hold matches all across the country in defiance. Throughout that period the association defied Black and Tan terror, with some of their victims clearly selected by their connection to the GAA.

Had Dublin Castle been smarter they would have offered General Secretary Luke O’Toole and other GAA stalwarts a grant to upgrade Croke Park, and the hint of a run at a seat in the House of Commons. Or Brussels and Strasbourg.