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THE PROTECTION RACKET
Eamonn McCann explains how Féile '93 became a condom-free zone.
Eamonn McCann, 28 Jul 1993
"THEY WEREN'T going to risk the Féile for French Letters", growled one disgruntled observer, explaining why plans to sell condoms at the fourth Trip to Tipp were suddenly cancelled last week.
The plan had been announced on the Monday before last, July 12th, at a press conference in the Anner Hotel in Thurles attended by Denis Desmond of Féile promoters MCD and Michael Lowry, Fine Gael TD for Tipperary North and chairman of the GAA's Semple Stadium Committee. However, news outlets were told by fax the following day that there had been a "misunderstanding" and that condoms would not be on sale in the stadium after all.
The fax was a fudge. There had been no "misunderstanding". What had happened was that leading members of the GAA in Tipperary had objected to the plan on the grounds that it was "immoral", and the Féile organisers had climbed down rather than risk a confrontation.
The proposal for a stall in Semple Stadium selling condoms had come from Unified Health Care Products, a Dublin firm with the Irish franchise for condoms imported from France and distributed under the neat, if hardly imaginative, brand-name "Le Condom". A fortnight ago Vincent O'Sullivan of Unified met with a representative of Hot Press and reached an agreement whereby "Les Condoms" would be sold from the Hot Press stall.
"You've got the t-shirts, we've got the condoms", was O'Sullivan's rationale - a reference to the hugely popular Hot Press t-shirts bearing the slogan "Fuck Me - But Wear A Condom". It was agreed that Hot Press would receive a 20 percent commission on sales.
The arrangement was approved by Fauldstead Events Management, the company which handles merchandising and catering for most MCD gigs, and by MCD itself. Michael Lowry was aware of the plan and voiced no objection on behalf of the Stadium Committee when the announcement was made at the July 12th press conference. Neither Unified Health Care nor Hot Press was party to the cancellation: Hot Press was informed at the same time as other news outlets.
A spokesperson for the Stadium Committee told Hot Press that the plan had been dropped because it had involved the installation of vending machines. "It was a question of keeping within the law. There will be many young people under the legal age of 16 for buying condoms, and vending machines obviously couldn't discriminate. That's all there was to it".
This wasn't true. As the Stadium Committee is aware, the intention at all times was to sell the condoms over-the-counter. There had been no plan to install vending machines. There would have been no more difficulty keeping within the law regarding condoms than there will be regarding age limits on the sale of alcohol.
Speculation that Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, Dr. Dermot Clifford, had personally intervened to force the abandonment of the plan appears to be unfounded. The speculation may have been based on the fact that Dr. Clifford, who is based in Thurles, was sharply critical of the Féile two years ago and publicly questioned whether it was appropriate for the GAA to make the stadium available to the organisers.
However, Dr. Clifford was on holiday throughout the relevant period. No-one associated with the Féile claims to have had communication from him on the issue.
Neither has it been possible to confirm a story in the Sunday Independent last weekend which alleged that "The ban on the sale of condoms was imposed after high-powered pressure from senior figures in the Catholic church". The page two story quoted a "source close to the organisers" saying that "Leading figures in the Church were really up in arms . . . They made their views known to us in no uncertain terms, and there was an awful lot of pressure". The Independent identified neither the "senior Church figures" nor the "source close to the organisers".
The truth appears to be less dramatic, if no less interesting.
In the Thurles area, there was no evidence of strong op-position to the condom plan before the cancellation was announced. The local newspaper, the Tipperary Star, says that it received no press statements in opposition, or protest calls or letters, in the 24 hours between the July 12th press conference and the following day's fax.
Says one local sports journalist: "There would have been no need for outside pressure to make some elements on the Stadium Committee uneasy about the condoms plan. The law may have changed but there's still a lot of people who just wouldn't be comfortable with the idea. There are some people still vaguely unhappy about having to host the Féile at all.
"The fact that the plan simply slipped out at a press conference will also have made a number of people think they were being 'bounced' into this thing, and they made their resentment known."
Few people in the music business are inclined, in the circumstances, to blame MCD or Michael Lowry for backing off. The general feeling is that the issue was marginal to the main business at hand and that it would have been foolhardy to force a confrontation with less than a fortnight to go to the Féile weekend.
However, now that the issue has been raised it is unlikely to go away. The sale of condoms as envisaged was perfectly legal. Indeed, the official Féile programme will carry an advert, inserted by the Department of Health, aimed at Féile patrons and urging the use of condoms for health reasons.
The question of whether condoms can be sold in GAA stadia may have to be decided by the association nationally. At present it has no policy on the matter: it has never arisen before. But if the GAA is to continue to host rock events as a means of raising revenue it will eventually have to make a clear decision, rather than leave the issue to the random pressures local groups exert or come under.
A GAA policy on condoms is now called for. Debate on it will be interesting.
Meanwhile, Hot Press cover star Michael Hutchence of INXS has expressed incredulity at the ban.
"I find it incredibly irresponsible," he says in an interview elsewhere in this issue.
"What's the prevailing logic? It's strange that they would do that at a festival, especially since it will be full of 50,000 people who most likely should have one in their back pocket. Maybe I'll throw some of my own out. But I don't really understand. If it's legal to sell them now then why aren't they selling them? There's good reason for them."