It has become alarmingly clear, particularly in relation to the ongoing Orkambi drug crisis, that many of the problems Ireland faces today are likely to engulf and ultimately destroy the GAA in the coming years.
At the time of writing this, two cousins of mine, Marisa and her six-year-old daughter Hannah, are residing in the University Hospital in Limerick. Hannah suffers from Cystic Fibrosis and is currently undergoing intensive medical treatment, all the while waiting for the life-saving Orkambi drug to be approved by the powers that be in Irish society.
The drug has been available worldwide for 18 weeks but, as yet, policy makers in Ireland are unsure as to whether the drug will be brought to Ireland due to its cost. In short, men in boardrooms convene weekly to decide whether the lives of over 600 Cystic Fibrosis sufferers in Ireland are “worth it”. As well as preparing for a county semi-final with Castleisland Desmonds, I spent most of the past few weeks wondering why such a risk was being taken with a child’s life. The truth I came to is that Irish society, sick children and the uncertain future of the GAA are all connected in complex and troubling ways.
I doubt I’ll ever forget the words of an American student I spoke to in UCC back in 2006. Scrooge, as I called him in my head, was everything I disliked in a human being; bigoted, entitled and dismissive of those less fortunate than he was. Following a discussion on his beliefs and, in particular, his views on wealth and poverty, Scrooge said something I’ve never forgotten and which roughly went; “I have loads of money waiting for me when I get older, and to be honest I intend to spend it all on alcohol, cars and girls until the day I die. The world is unfair and I’m aware that some people don’t get their fair share because people like me have everything, but nobody is going to do anything about it, and I don’t believe there’s any god waiting to judge me afterwards, so I’ll just going to keep going as I am.”
He reminded me of Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France before the French Revolution, who when asked about the poverty and hardship of the Paris poor, reportedly replied; “Let them eat cake”. What I’ve come to realise since is that though none of them are likely to admit it publicly, many politicians and financial elites in Ireland privately view life and their world in the same way as Scrooge and Marie; that our country is a giant marketplace where wealth and power can be accumulated at the expense of others, without personal consequence or fear of reprisal.
What I’ve also realised is that the GAA is slowly but surely becoming populated with individuals with similar ideas, individuals who see the GAA as a product and profit-making goldmine to be used to their own advantage, not a way of life for a large section of the population.
When thinking about Irish society and the GAA, it is easy to draw parallels with the United States and HBO’s “The Wire”. Various sections of American society have always produced eloquent voices of rebellion and social change, figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Malcolm X, Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky, Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Ron Kovic and Martin Luther King. Commentary on America by radical Americans has always existed, from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches against tyranny from when N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” boldly proclaimed to America that; “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” In recent times, however, HBO’s The Wire became one of the most powerful voices of criticism in American history.
Over five seasons from 2002 to 2008, the critically acclaimed show focused on the hypocrisy of the American dream, highlighting instead the American nightmare that was a society being torn apart by the existence of excessive power and wealth. Set in Baltimore, Maryland, The Wire, as well as being an exceptionally entertaining drama, explored policing, violence, the war on drugs, politics, corruption, capitalism, working class life, poverty, racism, homelessness, education, media propaganda and the human tragedies of modern society. It was spellbinding, powerhouse television, the likes of which had never been seen before. What is uncomfortable, however, about The Wire for Irish audiences is that almost every issue covered can be applied directly to the Ireland of today.
If “Season 6” of The Wire was ever made, Ireland would be a perfect setting. The reason for this is that far from being an idyllic and contented nation, we at times resemble broken Baltimore more than we care to admit. It is not a popular thing to say, hear or digest, and often provokes hostility, but as George Orwell stated: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
In “The Wire, Season 6: Ireland”, 20% of the wealthiest citizens in the country own 73% of the country’s wealth, with the bottom 20% owning 0.2% of this wealth. Our poorest are consistently demonised, poverty it seems has nothing to do with the terrible decisions of our political and financial elites, but the “inherent failures” of the poor.
Travellers and Muslims are viewed with the same resentment and suspicion as darkly clothed women at Salem witch trials. Refugees and asylum seekers are compared with the onset of the Black Death and would likely be blamed if an asteroid was to obliterate Ireland. Left-wing socialists, social activists and water charge protesters it seems, are a “sinister fringe” of communist thugs who would have Ireland transformed into a Soviet gulag. Homeless people on our streets and homeless families sleeping in cars do so apparently because of “poor choices” they have made in life, not due to the lack of support or compassion one would imagine fundamental to a 21st century democracy.
“Season 6” might also highlight how social welfare recipients are not deemed to be unemployed because our economy is struggling, but because they are “scroungers”. The show might highlight here how media outlets often ignore facts like executives receiving €900,000 golden handshake pay offs, which would take “the scrounger” 100 years to accumulate if he spent nothing in all that time. Insane propaganda yes, but in “The Wire” of Ireland, such narratives have been hugely effective. As Malcolm X once commented; “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Though already covered in Season 4 of The Wire, “Season 6” would argue that a key point in Ireland’s troubles is an education system that doesn’t teach us how society works and how people are exploited daily. Worst of all, however, writers would provide a scathing critique of our health system, an abomination due to a refusal to properly tax Ireland’s wealthiest, taxes that would provide adequate health care for Irish citizens, and pay for example, for the life-saving Cystic Fibrosis drug, Orkambi. (“We can’t tax these people or they’ll leave” being most scientifically inaccurate, immoral fabrication ever promoted by right-wing media cheerleaders).
In the past week, my cousin Marisa wrote a wonderful and impassioned letter to the Minister of Health asking why negotiations about the availability of the life-saving Orkambi drug is still in doubt while her daughter Hannah undergoes painful medical treatment in Limerick and Crumlin. The letter speaks of how ports are inserted into Hannah’s chest as doctors struggle “to find lines in her little hands” for the needles. In one part of the letter, Hannah, tearful and in pain, asks why she has to undergo such agonising treatment. As Marisa herself noted, the true answer is as dark and vile as you can imagine: in the eyes of government advisors, due to the potential cost of the drug, “she’s simply not worth it”. This despite the fact that there is more than enough wealth in our country to afford its purchase.
What becomes clear here is that in all aspects of Irish life, from poverty to sick children, Ireland’s political and financial elites would sooner choose to watch many Irish citizens starve, emigrate or die of ill health than give up any power or wealth they feel entitled to. Arguing that we live in a fair and just society, where people succeed or fail on merit is a ridiculous assumption. The idea that Ireland’s wealthiest and the rest have an “equal chance” in life is akin to saying that a blindfolded man in crutches has just as good a chance of winning as Usain Bolt in a 100 metre sprint. On the contrary, as one character in The Wire expressed, the game is rigged, and those without power are merely pawns on a savage chessboard, as Hannah’s situation plainly exemplifies. What is important to remember here is that power and wealth affect all aspects of life in Ireland and around the world, and that the GAA, now and in the coming years is no exception.
Years before the 1916 Rising, James Connolly famously stated that removing the Union Jack in place of the Tricolour would be pointless unless elitist wealth and power that also oppressed Irish people were removed as well. It is sad to think that the GAA, which played such a radical role in the nation’s path to independence, could yet become part of the elitist, “greasy till fumblers” of Ireland. One of the GAA’s biggest problems is its emigration issue, for instance, which is caused almost exclusively by right-wing economics and vulgar capitalism, yet the GAA has rarely spoken out about this, possibly because it does not wish to offend establishment figures and political friends in high places.
As an organisation, the GAA is supposed to be communal and democratic. Like other areas in Irish life, however, there is a movement towards a corporate fascism, a GAA heavily populated by individuals and groups with no interest in the organisation outside of its financial value. The GAA is now at the highest level influenced by parasitic corporations, businessmen, marketing gurus, advertisers, and sponsorship executives keen to make money from high profile players and teams.
What is key to remember here is that in the business mind-set of these people, inter-county level GAA is hugely profitable, with club level being an unwanted nuisance that drains the GAA of funding that could be used to make the organisation a cash cow for a select few. For those who say that this corporate takeover could never happen, it is important to note that this is exactly what happened to the Olympics, a commercialised, corrupt institution that has lost much its appeal and original ethos. History has always shown that in sport and society, democracy is often a useful illusion to be discarded when money, the true god, calls to attention.
In recent years, the Sky TV rights deal has highlighted more than any other event the lean towards a corporate takeover of the GAA. Here we saw the GAA’s hired marketers and boardroom propagandists go into overdrive, trying to explain that the deal was made for the benefit of the Irish people, and not as a mere profit-making exercise. We were told, for instance, that the deal was about helping Irish people abroad to see the games.
Having lived in the UK for two years before any Sky deal, we never missed a game once. If anything, the deal has ensured that countless Irish people unable to afford Sky can no longer see a number of high-profile games here in Ireland. The deal was also, we were told, about spreading the appeal of our national games to a UK audience, a meaningless soundbite that more than anything made the Irish people sound like a forlorn man desperately trying to impress a long lost British ex-girlfriend.
The biggest lie of all, however, was the idea that the Sky TV money would trickle down to clubs and grassroots members, much like the lie told to Irish citizens in relation to big business in our country. Replacing the phrase “money trickling down” with “crumbs falling from a table” gives a much more accurate depiction of how clubs around Ireland are struggling to support their teams, raise funds, buy jerseys, maintain fields etc. (Much in the same way grassroots soccer clubs and League of Ireland teams struggle also due to a lack of political influence and support at the highest levels).
Clubs in many parts of Ireland exist in spite of paltry support from GAA headquarters, not because of it, and exist due to the work of countless men and women who give much time and effort to helping their clubs survive. For the vulture capitalists and bandwagon corporations who have infiltrated the GAA in recent years, it might seem surprising that such people exist, people who see the GAA as something passed down to them from the generations before and to be passed on to generations after, something higher than consumerism that cannot be bought nor sold.
In time, the GAA will have to decide if it wants to look after grassroots members or cater for corporate interests. Most would argue that the GAA needs to pander to such people, but at what cost? The signs are troubling already, many lifelong supporters are unable to afford tickets to major games, as has already happened with numerous Premier League clubs in England. Also, for this year’s All-Ireland finals, countless Dublin, Mayo, Tipperary and Kilkenny fans who followed their teams since February did not get to see the games in Croke Park, with large amounts of tickets reserved for corporate sponsors and political figures who would struggle to differentiate between a sliotar and a tennis racket. It is only a matter of time also I believe before Sky attempt to buy the complete and exclusive TV rights to the All-Ireland finals, and succeed in their efforts.
The truth is that, given the choice between its grassroots members and the potential to make millions in the coming years, a GAA saturated with business people influencing those in the highest positions will drop its members and club teams faster than you can say; “Please sir, I want some more.” What I believe will happen is that the GAA as we know it will die, leading to a possible split into a corporate organisation that represents inter-county GAA teams and a grassroots organisation that represents clubs, with the latter struggling in comparison to its well-funded cousin.
Should the inter-county scene become professional or semi-professional, it will be easy to entice ambitious coaches and high standard players who want to play at the highest level to choose the newer organisation when called to play for their county. In such a separate, two-tier system, inter-county GAA would become a commodified, much-hyped, media-driven circus. However, the core GAA collective and communitarian ethos, its greatest strength, would suffer greatly, lessoning the appeal of Gaelic games in cities, towns and villages all over Ireland, and leading to its eventual demise. It sounds unthinkable, but make no mistake, if there are men in the world capable of denying life-saving treatments to children for monetary reasons, then there are future individuals who will sell the very soul of the GAA for the right price also.
All is not lost yet. The grassroots GAA community, like the rest of Ireland, must aim their cannons at the powers that threaten their existence. They must politicise, organise, protest and demand that the GAA remains an organisation that exists for the people, and not for individuals seeking profit for themselves. There is no doubt one day that upon hearing the demands of lowly members, the wealthy and powerful factions of the GAA would likely say; “Let them eat cake.”
The GAA community, however, as well as the people of Ireland should remember that 100 years ago, a group of Irish people fought to the death in the hope of creating an Ireland of equality and fairness, free of oppression, poverty and exploitation. We should remember the countless citizens who have been scattered around the globe because of political ineptitude and casino economics. We should remember the thousands of individuals and families impoverished and homeless due to the greed of wolfish profiteers. We should remember that there are six-year-old girls like Hannah O’Connell in hospitals who cannot access life-saving drugs because the Scrooges of Ireland believe they are entitled to all that glitters in this land and will protect their interests at any cost.
But just as we cannot allow such children to suffer needlessly, we cannot allow the GAA to become another Irish story of money triumphing over integrity. Despite what some of our media would wish of us, we are not docile cogs on a great economic wheel, but Irish citizens capable of great political action and social change in our time. As the already mentioned Malcolm X once stated; “Power only ever takes a back step in the face of more power.” Through our resistance, we can help the corporate powers of the GAA and Ireland understand that not only are we going to eat cake; we are going to take over the bakery as well.
Speedy recovery kid. x
Tell the Minister for Health to support the fight for Orkambi on www.YesOrkambi.ie
Twitter: @YesOrkambi #YesOrkambi Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/yesorkambi
Ger Reidy, Pundit Arena
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