I am delighted to be here this evening in the Mullingar Park Hotel for this prestigious occasion – the GAA Congress.
I know that delegates will have many issues to discuss and many decisions to make – decisions which will have an impact on the organisation at all levels in the future. The Annual Congress is a most important occasion – providing as it does a forum for agreeing policy and for people from all around the country to come together to meet, debate and socialise.
This is an evening of celebration but I know you will join with me tonight in remembering PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr. I stood with the First and deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland, with Uachtarán Christy Cooney, with the President of the Ulster Council, and with the community of Beragh in Co. Tyrone at his funeral.
We witnessed Ronan’s coffin carried in relay by his PSNI colleagues and members of Tyrone GAA, including Mickey Harte who despite his own grief came to support the Kerr family. We saw community solidarity, people united in revulsion at the senseless killing of a young man who was dedicating his life to the protection of his community.
We saw national leadership of the highest order by Cumman Luthchleas Gael.
Ronan was a son, a brother, a friend, a colleague – and a GAA man. He loved all that was good in life – his sport, his club and his community.
Those who carried out this vile and evil act represent no one.
We cannot, and will not, allow them to exert their will on communities who cherish the freedom and the peace that now exist in our country.
We cannot, and will not, return to the dark days of violence and isolation.
And we cannot, and will not, forget the memory of brave people like Ronan Kerr.
It is the first time that the Congress has been held in Mullingar and while we don’t all profess loyalty to the maroon and white, we are nevertheless united by a deep love of Gaelic games and value its central place in Irish life and culture.
Whatever jersey we don, whatever team we support, our parishes, our communities and our lives have been transformed by the positive influences of the Gaelic Athletic Association. It is indeed no exaggeration to say that in 2011 – 127 years after its foundation, the Association forms an intrinsic part of the fabric of Irish society.
It is fair to say that its founders could not have envisioned the phenomenon that is the GAA today. They sowed the seeds of what was to become the most celebrated sports in the country and the most influential national cultural organisation of the 20th Century and beyond.
Sport and recreation are only a part of that story. GAA helps to instill in us a sense of community, identity and pride. It is the lifeblood of many different communities throughout the country.
Every town and village has a Gaelic club that has provided sport and physical activity for generations of youth over the past 127 years. One has only to look at the events in Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day, when thousands of supporters flock to Dublin for the All-Ireland Club finals, to see evidence of the pride and passion that exists in parishes throughout the country.
Sport combines a healthy approach to competitiveness and the promotion of the concept of fair play. This combination is extraordinary and its influence plays an important role in the education of young people. Leadership and respect for others are two of the important themes of Gaelic Games and all sports and these are qualities that translate right across into community work and everyday life regardless of where you live. I would ask that we continue to encourage young people to become involved in sport and to learn that honest effort has its own reward in sport, as in life.
Sport not only leaves people with wonderful, exciting memories, but can also create lifelong friendships. This would not be the case were it not for the extraordinary commitment and total dedication of so many people, particularly voluntary workers, who have devoted themselves to sport, to their communities and to young people down through the years.
I know from my own involvement in club life that the GAA relies heavily on volunteers. I am convinced that without the commitment of volunteers, Irish sport would not be so successful. Volunteerism translates into well-ordered clubs and sporting organisations that provide the environment for nurturing of sporting talent, particularly amongst our young people. It is imperative then that we make the best efforts to support and protect these volunteers. I firmly believe that if you have good standards of practice in your organisation people are more likely to want to join.
We all know that it takes time, resources, energy and commitment to gain the interest of young people and to harness their enthusiasm and energies for the good of our sport. I greatly appreciate the abundance of goodwill, generosity of spirit and commitment shown by you all. I congratulate everyone who gives such huge commitment, especially when the pace of modern life makes time so precious.
I have been a life-long member of the GAA. My late father Henry was a member of the great Mayo team of the 30’s, winning an All Ireland medal in 1936.
I would love to see the current team under James Horan’s management emulate the great achievement of that team in the not too distant future. The recent National League win over the current All-Ireland Champions Cork, which I attended, is I hope a sign of greater things to come for my native county.
Gaelic Games have given me a lot of happy and exciting occasions through playing and watching games for more than half a century. I have also made life-long friends through my involvement in the association.
This Government understands that sport has huge potential to contribute to the development of a healthier society. We want to ensure that all people are encouraged and given opportunities to participate in sport and to enjoy all the benefits that sport can bring through developing a healthy lifestyle. A Special Budget Measure was introduced in 2001 to increase the level of younger participants in the three major field sports and to date the GAA has received over €26 million under this scheme. This Government is committed to continue this support and my Government colleague Michael Ring, the Minister for Sport, will be announcing the 2011 allocation later in the year.
Sporting facilities have improved significantly throughout the country in recent years with the help of the Government and the Sports Capital Programme. GAA County Boards and clubs in every corner of Ireland have benefited by over €211 million under the Scheme and there has been a transformation in the quality of facilities available, including dressing rooms, pitches, lights and equipment. This is in addition to over €107 million in funding towards the redevelopment of Croke Park. The GAA have been by far the greatest beneficiary of Sports Capital Funding.
We enjoyed a very memorable All-Ireland Hurling Final last year with Tipperary ending Kilkenny’s five-in-a-row dream in a classic final that encapsulated all that was good in our native game. The 2011 season is already well upon us and we have the National League Finals to look forward to over the next two weekends and the fun and games of the Championship starts with Roscommon’s trip to New York on Sunday week. Each new year brings with it the ray of hope that ‘this could be our year’ and that is what makes sport and the GAA in particular so important to all our lives Who knows it might even be Mayo’s turn this time but we’ve had so many false dawns in recent years that I know not to get too excited about the prospect!
I would like to pay tribute to Uachtarán Christy Cooney and all his colleagues in Cumann Lúthchleas Gael and Ard Stiúrthóir Paraic Duffy for the wonderful work they are doing in developing and promoting Gaelic Games.
To all present here this evening I hope you enjoy the excellent cuisine and the wonderful surroundings and I wish all the delegates a most successful and enjoyable congress.
Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.