The recent controversy regarding the playing of a charity soccer match to benefit the family of the late Liam Miller in the newly rebuilt Páirc Uí Chaoimh is interesting in the context of state aid and the initial refusal by the Cork County Board to make the venue available for this event. Property/ownership rights are often thought to be paramount, particularly where they have constitutional protection. However, the conditions under which state aid is provided impacts on the discretion of property owners, such as The Cork County Board, to provide access to other sporting bodies.
State aid is deemed an advantage granted by the government or public authorities on a selective basis which would give the recipient an advantage over competitors. This is prohibited under EU laws. State aid can come in the form of tax breaks, grants etc. State aid can be granted once it has received approval from the European Commission (the “Commission”).
The Irish Government gave €30 million to the Cork County Board to assist with the development of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The Irish Government formally notified the European Commission in circa. February 2016 about this grant. The Commission issued a decision regarding the €30 million grant to develop Páirc Uí Chaoimh on 22 July 2016, a copy of which can be found here.
It is clear that the grant given by the Irish Government to develop Páirc Uí Chaoimh was approved on the basis that it would be rented out to other field sports. The decision provides that “The facilities of the PUiC [Páirc Uí Chaoimh] stadium will also be made available to local communities for sports, cultural and educational activities” and “…the PUiC [Páirc Uí Chaoimh] facilities will be open to various users on a non-discriminatory and transparent basis”.
The decision also provides “The Irish authorities will monitor the use of the facility over a period of at least 15 years. If the terms of the grant are not complied with, and the facility is not used as intended, this could result in the clawback of aid.”
The Cork County Board must continue to comply with the decision given by the Commission as regards the potential for wider use of the stadium.
This current saga is an important reminder to all recipients of state grants, that grants are contingent on ongoing compliance with the basis that underpinned the decision.
The basis for refusing access to the Stadium appears to be based on Rule 42 of the GAA rules, broadly speaking that other sports cannot be played in GAA stadia unless prior approval is granted at GAA’s Annual Congress which is in February every year. So technically the GAA can only approve this match in February 2019 (however the match is potentially scheduled to be played in September 2018).
Rule 42 makes it very restrictive and very difficult to obtain consent from GAA authorities to open Páirc Uí Chaoimh to other activities. Some commentators have said that it is open to the GAA to get around rule 42 by characterising the proposed match as a charity event rather than a field sport. The giving of consent on this basis by the GAA could be justified as something that would be in furtherance of the promotion of community spirit as outlined in Rule 1.4 (a) of the GAA’s Official Guide Part 1. However the GAA will be reluctant to set such a broad precedent and it may be more appealing to give the consent on the basis of the state aid conditions, rather than face the reputational damage that a refusal would cause.
In light of recent events, Rule 42 should be reviewed as it would appear to conflict with the basis of the Commission’s decision in approving the €30 million grant aid.