When Garth Brooks decided to launch his return to the live arena with a series of shows here, it was a huge statement of faith in Ireland and in his Irish fans.
Just three weeks before the event, the word came through that Dublin City Council had granted a licence for only three of the five planned Garth Brooks shows in Croke Park. What the hell was going on?
The immediate impact of the decision was that at least 160,000 Brooks fans would effectively be disenfranchised. It was unprecedented. Literally. Seasoned observers tried to recall the last time that a licence for a major music event had been refused. The only instance that sprang to mind was over a decade ago, when an attempt was made to revive the original Lisdoonvarna Festival in Co. Clare and the local county council refused permission for the event.
Five days of intense drama, of political machinations and of behind the scenes negotiations later, the announcement was made that all five gigs have been cancelled. If the current stalemate persists, it is the worst of all worlds – one in which everyone loses except a small number of local blowhards and begrudgers. It is an own goal of spectacular proportions for Dublin and for Ireland.
Over the past 24 hours there have been further twists. Garth Brooks penned an open letter to Peter Aiken, which was duly passed on to the media for publication. It was a plea from the singer that, if anything could be done to save the five Dublin shows, he would be here in a heartbeat. Finally politicians – perhaps realising for the first time the scale of the damage which the cancellations had inflicted on Ireland internationally and the extent of the losses to the tourism sector – began to get involved. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, intervened for the first time. Leo Varadker offered to fly to Nashville. The Mexican ambassador offered himself as a potential mediator. The potential end game remains to be seen. But the Taoiseach has so far ruled out emergency legislation of a kind that would enable the five gigs to go ahead and so we may yet be left with a crazy, unnecessary debacle on our hands.
While it isn't a re-run of Bloody Sunday – we have to keep things in some kind of perspective – the cancellation would nonetheless be a disaster for music and for tourism here. We'll come to that later, but first it is necessary to nail some of the myths which have been widely peddled in the media about the nature of the planning process for events.
To suggest, for example, that it was somehow 'reckless' of the promoters to have put tickets on sale for the shows before a licence had been granted is utterly groundless and wrong. It is the way the system works and has worked – successfully as it happens – for many years. Licences for most big events are granted only a matter of weeks before they are due to happen.
If event organisers were forced to wait till licences had been issued, then no major shows would ever take place in Ireland.
The sequence is this. You negotiate and book the shows; then you inform the council of what's planned; next you put the tickets on sale; following which, you begin what can be a lengthy process of sorting out all of the details of the final application, which has to be made 10 weeks in advance of the event.
The nature of the licensing process is such that there is constant communication between the local authorities and promoters of big events. Local concerns are taken on board. Throughout all of the discussions, there is an element of working towards a mutually agreed set of compromises. The promoters have to outline their plans in detail. They describe the staging, the infrastructure, the support services; the authorities suggest changes and improvements in the arrangements; every detail in effect is discussed and negotiated; it is agreed what costs specifically are going to be covered by the promoters; security, traffic plans and safety are all part of the application; and finally, when everything has been hammered out, the licence is officially granted.
And almost universally, that is what has happened. In recent years, with some exceptions, the attitude of the local authorities has generally been positive and helpful. Festivals and events are important to Ireland. The authorities recognise this. But all of these events go on sale before the licence is issued. To suggest that Aiken Promotions, or any other promoters, were culpable in doing what everyone has to do is both unfair, and wrong to the point of libellousness.
Rather, the question has to be: why was nothing said until three weeks before the shows to suggest that the gigs were in jeopardy? And why in the end was the nuclear option chosen? The way it happened, when the City Council's position was set out, there simply wasn't time to explore all of the other potential options fully, nor for politicians to intervene in a way that might have triggered a solution before the shit hit the fan.
Clearly there is some local opposition to music events taking place in Croke Park and no one is denying anyone's right to air their views. But the level of inconvenience involved for those people is tiny compared to the colossal scale of the damage which is now being inflicted on the country as a whole, and on our reputation internationally, by the cancellation of the gigs.
In business terms, the sale of 400,000 tickets for just five shows, over five nights, made Garth Brooks planned series of Dublin gigs the biggest single event in music, anywhere in the world, this year. It also made it a potentially ginormous feel-good occasion for the capital city, and indeed for the country as a whole.
Garth Brooks had selected Dublin as the place to make his official return to the live stage after an absence of 14 years. He had chosen it ahead of anywhere else in Europe, including far bigger capitals like London. Indeed he had chosen it ahead of anywhere back on his home turf in the USA. It was by any standards an extraordinary homage to the music-loving spirit of Irish people.
Everybody in music wanted to know: why Dublin? And the answer, almost inevitably had to be: because Ireland is one of the great music capitals of the world; because Ireland is one of the best places any artist can ever play; because Ireland is a wonderfully warm, friendly and open country, where music is appreciated and where there is a unique understanding, knowledge and love of country music in particular.
Ultimately, the ticket sales told their own story. People from over a hundred countries were heading in this direction to see the shows. It is estimated that 70,000 people from outside the jurisdiction had booked tickets. These people would have delivered an injection into the economy somewhere north of €50 million.
In addition, Garth Brooks planned to record and film the shows here. He had booked time in studios and scoped out places to film elsewhere in Ireland. The whole shebang was destined to become a huge, spontaneous ad for Ireland as a place that every country music fan really should take time out to visit.
The eyes of the entertainment world would have been on Ireland throughout. The gigs would have made headlines and been shown on TV news across the globe. The Garth Brooks PR machine was only beginning to crank into action. Add in working press, radio and TV broadcasters, online media, record companies, recording engineers, photographers and all the rest and the value to the economy soars. In terms of opportunity lost, as well as reputational damage, if the gigs don't go ahead, the cost will be well north of €100 million.
The criticism has been levelled that planning permission had been given for only three gigs a year in Croke Park, and that the GAA and the promoters knew this – and that they were culpable in attempting to exceed the terms of the planning permission. But again, this is incorrect: the local council has the right to vary the terms of a planning permission and they do it all the time. The bottom line is that the council could have made the decision to allow all five concerts to go ahead. That was the expectation, among all of the interested parties. Kieran Mulvey and Senan Turnbull had been negotiating with local interests for months, compiling The Mulvey Report into the running of events in Croke Park. As far as the Mulvey team, and most local groups alike were concerned, the assumption was that all five of the Garth Brooks shows would proceed as planned.
Before the announcement was made, no one had predicted the decision not to licence two of the shows. And equally, no one in Dublin City Council seems to have realised that disallowing two of the shows would ultimately scupper the whole thing.
A first wave of frantic efforts was made to salvage the situation. A motion, proposed by Sinn Féin, was passed by Dublin City Council, to review the conditions of the licence to allow the five gigs to go ahead. But the executive in Dublin City Council have so far remained adamant that the decision could not be amended.
The crazy thing is that, all of the blowhards and begrudgers notwithstanding, in the end, it essentially comes down to a single issue. Peter Aiken of Aiken Promotions says that in the discussions he had with Dublin City Council, he was given an indication that there was no issue with extending the run of shows from three to five. He is quite clear that at no stage was he told – or even cautioned against – proceeding with the final two shows.
In response Dublin City Council insist that no comfort was given. But no one has suggested that Aiken Promotions were told to wait before announcing the gigs; and no one has suggested that they were specifically warned that the five shows would be too much.
Garth Brooks himself made the final call: it was all or nothing. And so far there is no indication that he will compromise on that stance. In his open letter he said that to play to 400,000 people in Dublin was a dream; to leave 160,000 out would be a nightmare.
No artist wants to preside over the disappointment of 160,000 of their most loyal fans. The gigs in Dublin were intended to be a celebration. But how could you celebrate over three nights under the shadow of the knowledge that 160,000 fans were out there feeling aggrieved that they had been abandoned? And how could you guarantee that none of the disenfranchised 160,000 would turn up and try to gain entry to the shows that did go ahead – especially those fans who had been unable to cancel flights and had travelled from overseas?
There can be little doubt that, in the end, Aiken Promotions desperately wanted to find a workable compromise. Perhaps two shows might have been postponed till early next year. Or perhaps a different mechanism could be created to allow the shows to go on. So far, however, no one has found a way to equalise the own goal.
While discussions are taking place you have to feel cautiously optimistic that a solution can be found. But if, on the other hand, the gigs are finally doomed, nothing will repair the appalling damage that has been inflicted, or compensate those people who will suffer losses as a result of what has happened. It is another blow for entrepreneurship; for the tourism sector; and for the economy.
What it does pinpoint is this. We have to find a way of ensuring that the greater good is served in relation to planning. Far too much weight has been given historically to the "not in my back yard" approach of a small number of people – especially where events and stadia are concerned.
This is not about the "little people" of the area around Croke Park successfully standing up to vested interests. Most sensible people in the zone wanted the gigs to go ahead – but no one ever canvassed their views. Indeed the revelations, over the past couple of days, that many objections to the concerts had been forged suggests that the whole process of the refusal may have been tainted.
In the light of all this, the planning permission for Croke Park should be revisited. The Irish people invested €100 million or more in building the place. Those 330,000 Irish people who bought tickets for Garth Brooks are also entitled to have a say in what happens there.
There are huge advantages to living in the centre of a capital city. But if you live beside a major public facility you have to be prepared to accept that there will be a bit of disruption and inconvenience along the way.
More can and should be done by the GAA to give balancing comfort to local people. But the best way forward is for the current limitations on the number of concerts to be lifted, allowing the Irish people to take full advantage of the existence of a world class stadium in Dublin city centre. It won't repair the damage done by the cancellation of Garth Brooks. But it is the only sensible long-term solution.
[A version of this article appears in print in Hot Press 38.12 July 10, 2014, on page 9 with the headline Victim of the Game]
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