The Offaly county board and their biggest club, Tullamore, have become entangled in a furious stand off over the lease of O'Connor Park.
Termination of the 35-year-lease is a live possibility for both sides as the row has drifted on for almost a year now with things approaching breaking point in recent weeks over the size of the yearly rent payable to Tullamore GAA club, along with other issues.
O'Connor Park was developed by Tullamore GAA Club in the 1930s and the county board took out the said lease on the grounds in 2002. At the time, O'Connor Park was no longer fit for purpose as a venue for top inter-county fixtures and a scheduled 2004 Leinster senior football clash between Offaly and Westmeath was switched to Croke Park because of health and safety guidelines.
The county board subsequently carried out a massive redevelopment of the ground, transforming it into a modern 18,000 capacity stadium with a 7,000 seater stand and it has won widespread praise as one of the best provincial venues in the country.
There is a debt of nearly €2million owed on the development – this debt is now owed to Croke Park and clubs are levied each year to pay it, including Tullamore GAA.
While there was occasional flashpoints between the county board and the Tullamore club over the years, things erupted when the board withheld money owed to the club for the lease last year. The board had sought a reduction in the rent because of loss of income due to Covid-19 and when this wasn't granted, they didn't pay the full amount due.
Buying the ground outright is the preferred option for Offaly GAA and could be done with Croke Park support but Tullamore are adamantly opposed to this
They have been at loggerheads since then and a meeting of the Offaly GAA hierarchy this week heard that they currently owe €33,139 to Tullamore GAA between 2020 and 2021. The lease fee was €56,245 last year and will increase to €57,876 this year – it is index linked with inflation.
The board have paid 75% of what they owed and a series of meetings, including ones involving Leinster GAA and the GAA at national level, have failed to solve the impasse.
The Tullamore club have claimed that they were told by Offaly GAA chairman Michael Duignan last May that they would be "terminating the lease" but the county board have since clarified that they don't wish to exit O'Connor Park. However, termination is still a possibility and in a letter read at this week's board meeting, Tullamore GAA have insisted that the ground is not for sale and they won't be reviewing the lease agreement.
Buying the ground outright is the preferred option for Offaly GAA and could be done with Croke Park support but Tullamore are adamantly opposed to this.
Tullamore have accused the board of being "a creditor defaulter", "a bad debtor for Tullamore GAA Club" and with being in breach of a legal agreement. The club have also stated that the board must give them six months notice in writing if they wish to terminate the lease.
Earlier this year, Tullamore GAA offered a €15,000 donation to the board to help "alleviate some of the cash flow difficulties that had arisen due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as highlighted by Offaly GAA over the course of this dispute".
This was rejected by the board because of the "conditionality of the offer" - a decision which was criticised by the club in a letter last July.
The county board have four things they want changed with the current lease.
1 – Rent reduction on O'Connor Park;
2 – Reducing/ceasing of access rights for use of O'Connor Park by Tullamore GAA;
3 – Terminate the need for Tullamore GAA's permission to hold events/concerts in O'Connor Park;
4 – Cease or reduce the payment of monies to Tullamore GAA as part of any future arrangements in regard to the renaming of O'Connor Park by a sponsor.
In a letter sent to the board on 12 September, Tullamore GAA club did send out an olive branch that there may yet be some room for negotiation, ending it by stating: "It is Tullamore GAA's position that it will not consider entering discussions on any of the above issues until such time as: (i) Offaly GAA are compliant with the lease agreement, (ii) all outstanding monies due to Tullamore GAA are paid in full and (iii) Offaly GAA provide a written guarantee that rent payments going forward will be paid in accordance with the lease."
Incidentally, this week's meeting also heard that the board anticipate a surplus of over €77,000 on their day-to-day running costs this year, having lost almost €260,000 last year, because of Covid-19.
It remains to be seen if agreement can be reached between the parties. The general GAA public in Offaly is in favour of the county board retaining control of the ground but compromise is now required on both sides – the timing of the row is particularly bad for Offaly GAA as there is a new found optimism about the future in the county and this row is taking time and energy away from their games-focused approach.
The new board, led by Michael Duignan, have won widespread approval in the county. The All-Ireland U20 football title was won this year and golf superstar Shane Lowry got involved as a major financial backer of them.