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Popular GAA summer camps fall victim to coronavirus pandemic

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Damian Harvey, Tyrone coaching and games officer

Damian Harvey, Tyrone coaching and games officer

Damian Harvey, Tyrone coaching and games officer

Up to 15,000 children in Ulster will have no GAA summer scheme to attend this year, as county boards are feeling the knock-on effect of putting their coaching staff on the Government furlough scheme.

Games development managers (GDMs) in Northern Ireland were placed on furlough, while their counterparts in the Republic were retained, including those in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal.

It means that the traditional highlight of the summer for thousands of children, where they get coached by inter-county stars working alongside the county coaching officers in a range of Gaelic games, is not available this year as GDMs could not coordinate the camps while on furlough.

It is understood that Derry are preparing to host a number of sites for camps, but they are not organised by the county board.

Yesterday Antrim announced they would not be going ahead with their camps - which were attended by over 2,000 children last summer - after hosting a meeting of their management committee last Friday.

In a statement they said: "The uncertainty over the last 106 days and, at one stage, the prospect of having no GAA activities for the remainder of 2020 have hindered the planning processes required to stage Cúl Camps."

Among their difficulties, they mentioned not having an office base to work from, as St Mary's University has been closed since March 20, their coaching staff is on furlough and they have to work within the existing Covid-19 restrictions, which means there is no access to GAA buildings until August 10.

It takes approximately three months to organise a Cúl camp, between recruiting coaches, training them up and processing their legal clearance through Access NI. With county coordinators on furlough, there has been no time to arrange that.

Damian Harvey, Tyrone coaching and games officer, explained: "No matter what, it always falls back to the games development manager of each county. Our GDM is currently furloughed with no prospect of coming back by the looks of it. Ulster Council have furloughed 50-odd coaches.

"Whatever hand we were going to get from Ulster has been severely reduced. Firing 3,000 youngsters out onto pitches, making sure there are enough coaches - and it is one coach per eight children now where it used to be one for 14 - you have to make sure they have all gone through child protection and all been trained.

"You don't organise that in three weeks. You need three months to organise it."

Mr Harvey continued: "The GAA at national level, in my opinion, don't come out of this well.

"They talk about 'all in it together'. But we are not all in it together. Every GDM is operational in the south of Ireland, including the ones in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal.

"They are all being paid. Meanwhile, all of our lads are on furlough in the six counties.

"There's something wrong there. We took the easy option and decided it would do."

He added: "In Tyrone last year it could have been up to 50 coaches all in. That could be county players, some teachers who are off work, student teachers who are looking work on their break. Other youngsters doing sports science degrees.

"And they are all coordinated by each of the centres, the full-time coaches, and we would have five full-time coaches - the likes of Conor Gormley, who might run two camps in the one week, make sure everybody is where they are meant to be, take in their registration, all that."

He also spelled out a reality in the event of inclement weather conditions.

"You are playing fast and loose with these youngsters. Where are they going to get lunch? What happens if it rains during the day, are you going to take them inside if it absolutely buckets out of the heavens, which it does in nearly every Irish summer?

"Where are you going to put these youngsters?"

In Tyrone last year every football club hosted a camp.

Add in a few hurling clubs and it comes to over 50 clubs that catered for the young children in their parish and club.

In each of these clubs, they required qualified and screened coaches to assist.

Every week of the summer there were seven or eight venues hosting a week of coaching. Logistically, it is a serious undertaking.

"It's not a matter of rocking up and somebody will be there, appointed by Croke Park, to look after your venue. That's not the way it works. Each county has a coordinating role," stated Mr Harvey.

"We have been asking since the start of April what was happening about the summer camps? And no decision was made at national level in terms of the coaching. They waited and waited and then fired out a directive that was too late in the day and, ultimately, we had a decision to make based on the medical evidence at that time. It wasn't strong enough to suggest that the camps should be run."

Belfast Telegraph