Monaghan senior team manager, Seamus McEnaney.

Opinion: Banty got it wrong, as did whoever spilled the beans

The news broke last Wednesday night online that another county had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

“Another alleged breach of training by a county team is being investigated,” read the tweet from the Irish Independent’s sports desk, which directed readers to the following morning’s paper for the full story.

Immediately, the texts started flying around. We have all heard rumours and seen the major coverage of Dublin’s breach; who were the ones to be caught out now? Soon, it emerged that it was Monaghan.

A “dossier” – the Indo’s words, not mine – containing photos and video footage was supplied to the Irish Independent, the GAA and, in a most surreal twist, the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee herself.

When the reporters came calling, Monaghan county board chairman, Declan Flanagan, stated that he had no knowledge of it.

“If it is of a Monaghan training session, I’m not aware of it, because we have been holding fast on going back to training. As far as I’m concerned, Monaghan GAA are not doing any training and I’ll tell you there is very little activity on any pitch in Monaghan,” Flanagan told the Independent.

He added: “The gates in Cloghan are locked, the only people can get into them is the HSE … and as far as I am concerned there is no training going on in Monaghan with any county team and that is it.”

However, by Thursday morning, the board had conducted a thorough investigation. What that entailed, we don’t know but it was wrapped up fairly quickly and Monaghan meted out their own punishment and announced as much in a brief, 77-word statement issued at noon.

“Monaghan GAA acknowledge that following an investigation this morning, there was a breach of the Covid-19 regulations and guidelines,” it read.

“Resulting from an internal investigation, our senior team manager, Seamus McEnaney, has admitted that this was a serious error of judgement and apologises unreservedly for the indiscretion.

“The County Management Committee have suspended the Monaghan GAA Senior Football manager, Seamus McEnaney for 12 weeks with immediate effect and will fully co-operate and comply with any Croke Park investigation.”

Monaghan followed Dublin’s lead, we presume. When their illicit training was uncovered, the Dubs also sprung into action, imposing an identical suspension on their own senior team manager, Dessie Farrell.

These were pre-emptive moves by the respective county committees and were never likely to cut it. Sure enough, the GAA has already declared these 12-week suspensions null and void and will come down harder itself in time we presume.

There was plenty of outrage in the last few days about it, which is in keeping with the ‘gotcha’ culture which has abounded in recent months as we have turned into a nation of curtain twitchers, with people taking photos of groups in the park and so on to post online indignantly.

Whoever the person was who sent the dossier to the Minister for Justice should take a long, hard look at themselves. This drumlin Deepthroat probably feels they have done the state a great service in uncovering a monumental crime, something abhorrent, a deed so devious and dangerous that it deserves the attention of the most powerful people in the State.

Give me a break. The only thing objectionable about the current state of play is that footballers are banned from going to the pitch and doing some training in the open air in the first place.

Senior inter-county Gaelic football and hurling teams are elite sportspeople. That they are not deemed as such only illustrates that the arbitrary classification process is dead wrong.

The point has been made that they cannot be elite if they are not professional, which is foolish. Boxing is a perfect example; there are pros in Ireland who have full-time jobs and box on the side for minuscule purses that barely cover their training costs. Meanwhile, the top amateurs train full-time and travel around the world to compete.

Early last week, in response to a query from The Irish Times, the Health Protection Surveillance Committee (HPSC) released figures, which showed that just one confirmed case of Covid-19 in every 1000 can be traced to outdoor activity. It is absolutely ludicrous that senior inter-county football and hurling teams cannot train in the open air.

When one considers how low the chances of passing the virus on outside are and, following on, how low the chances of young, healthy people falling seriously ill from it is, it becomes preposterous.

But that is the Ireland we now live in, where we are treated like morons. Take the ongoing and shameful closure of golf courses as an example; last year, a prominent expert stated publicly that golf was, in itself, safe.

“The problem,” said Prof Sam McConkey, “is not the golf. On a technical level it is not an issue in relation to Covid-19. It is the socialising before it and afterwards.”

That makes sense but there is no opportunity to socialise now, before or after. Where would golfers do it? I play golf and I can assure you that the post-round house party scene is not all that lively at the best of times.

These sort of public utterances at best are contradictory; at worst, they insult people’s intelligence, just like telling parents it’s not safe for their children to play on a football pitch, but is for them to sit in a classroom.

Of course, I get that it’s the mingling before and after that is the issue but is that not a risk worth taking? Must life not go on? Is personal responsibility a thing of the past?

NPHET’s constant doomsday utterances have reached the point of parody. A report in the Sunday Times last week revealed that the committee have told the public that we are facing a “critical” or “crucial” moment in 12 of the last 13 months. Two weeks ago, they projected that a moderate increase in close contacts between April 5 and September 30 would produce 578,000 new cases – well over double what we have seen in the last 13 months combined - and a peak of 9,500 per day.

We don’t doubt their intentions but they have been wrong on so much to this point that their credibility has been fatally undermined.

Ireland has endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world. There seems to be no plan for living with the virus; the only tool really employed is the bluntest one available, national lockdown.

It’s interesting, for example, that no level of regional opening up has even been trialled in 2021. This is especially strange when one considers that NPHET have set a precedent for regional lockdowns.

Last August, Kildare, Laois and Offaly found themselves in a fortnight-long lockdown on the advice of the committee after a number of Covid-19 clusters were identified.

Back then, the acting Chief Medical Officer (CMO) said that he was not surprised that people are angry and disappointed. “We felt really at this point we had to move,” he said.

Nine months on and people are angrier and more disappointed yet our NPHET overlords don’t feel they “have to move”. Instead, we are told, again and again, to “hold firm”, another of the snazzy, meaningless slogans rolled out over the last year along with “pause your life”, “come together by staying apart”, “flatten the curve” and the ultimate falsehood, “we are all in this together”.

Why could there not be regional opening up of society, even on an experimental basis? It would provide real incentives for compliance – and hope (remember that?).

As we write, the daily press release from NPHET has hit our inbox. Sligo, Kilkenny and Clare have reported zero new cases in the last 24 hours.

Kerry, Carlow, Leitrim, Waterford, Roscommon, Limerick, Tipperary and Westmeath all reported less than five, which may be as low as one. In Cavan, there were eight new cases. Monaghan, where the footballers committed such a grievous breach that someone felt a Minister needed to be informed, reported seven and is averaging five per day.

Lockdowns make sense, on one level, as a short, sharp ‘circuit breaker’. There comes a point, though, when people stop complying and when the restrictions begin to cause more harm than good. We passed that point a good while ago now. And still, it rumbles on.

A lie is still a lie, regardless how many believe it. What Monaghan and Dublin senior footballers did was wrong in that they sought to take an unfair advantage over their competitors – those who are not also training surreptitiously - and they deserve a slap on the wrist for it. They should not have done it.

But vilifying footballers for training in a perfectly safe environment is the greatest wrong of all in this sorry recent saga. Just because we, as a nation, have lost our collective minds does not change that. It’s time we shouted stop on this madness.