The political landscape of Irish sport could be facing into a significant period of upheaval over the next 18 months if the full range of the Government's plans come to fruition.
The two ministers with responsibility for sport, Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring, have set out targets for their time in office and they now intend to vigorously pursue these objectives. Some are pretty much set in stone, like Varadkar's apparent determination to drive the sports campus forward and Ring's reintroduction of the sports capital grants, others are less so. (Incidentally, the Department has already been inundated with applications for grants in the four and a half weeks since the scheme was reopened for the first time in four years and a lot more are expected between now and the first deadline of May 11.)
Ring is also thought to be preparing a new sports strategy. If he succeeds in this, and if he produces a comprehensive paper, it will be a welcome first in Irish politics, especially if the minister makes allowance for input from the relevant stakeholders in Irish sport. At a time when the amount of money available to fund sport is falling year on year, clear political direction is needed.
Also needed are clearly defined roles for those charged with running sport in Ireland. There is no issue here with the big sports, the likes of the GAA, IRFU and FAI run their own affairs with very little interference from outside agencies.
Most other sports fall under the Irish Sports Council's jurisdiction and Varadkar and Ring are both known to favour an update in the legislation governing the council. The current legislation dates back to the late 1990s. Last November, Varadkar announced that the Sports Council would be merged with the National Sports Campus Development Agency and although it was initially thought this merger could be put on the long finger that is not the case. New legislation is pencilled in for the first quarter of next year and the aim is to complete the merger by the end of 2013.
This is certainly ambitious -- and not just because as currently constituted they are both very different entities with separate boards, separate chief executives and separate staff. They also have very different briefs. The Sports Council is responsible for distributing government funding, implementing high-performance programmes, increasing participation levels, drug testing, child protection policies and so on. The NSCDA is charged with developing and running the campus, which now also includes the National Aquatic Centre and Morton Stadium in Santry.
All of which means there is nothing straightforward about the merger -- not that that should be a surprise in the notoriously internecine world of Irish sporting politics. One body in charge of implementing sports policy -- both in terms of infrastructure and participation -- might make sense in a lot of ways, but these things are rarely plain sailing.
Into this mix too there is a growing sense that the Department of Sport wants to take back some of the functions farmed out over the years, including some of the dispersal of funding. There may well be some jockeying for position in this regard in the next 18 months.
Which brings us to one definite battleground looming on the horizon. It may not be headline news, and you are unlikely to see or hear much about it, but the future of the country's Local Sports Partnerships is uncertain. The 31 LSPs are currently under the direct control of the Sports Council, and have been since the partnership model was first introduced to Ireland a decade ago, but may not be for much longer.
The Department is considering transferring responsibility for the LSPs over to county councils, ostensibly as part of the Government's plans for local authority reform. This is stoutly opposed by the Sports Council, which feels it has done a good job in growing the partnerships on a relatively small budget. This year, they will receive €5.38m, which equates to 50 per cent of their budget, and they are then required to generate the remainder locally.
Although some of the local partnerships have not lived up to expectations, it is generally acknowledged that the project has been a success in most areas. The idea is to put a local structure in place to promote increased levels of participation in sport; those which have been more successful, for example, targeted people who otherwise might not have had access to any kind of organised sporting activity and were therefore missing out on the many gains to be had from this, such as health and well-being and, crucially, social interaction.
A good example of this is the Link2beActive scheme run by sports partnerships, which helps unemployed people to get access to sports facilities like swimming pools and gyms in their area at a discounted rate.
The sports council fears that the partnerships will be exposed if transferred over to local authorities; that as county managers are left with less and less money coming in, they will burn all the easier targets first, and this would inevitably include the LSPs. Already in Wicklow, the partnership model is faltering because of this.
But this may not wash with the current government, which appears to want more control over how money is spent and wants to recentralise some functions to its bank of civil servants, and the LSPs are seen as an ideal candidate for this.
If the government decides to press ahead with this change, it is likely it will happen as part of the merger. Ultimately, the local sports partnerships are not a huge drain on State resources and, on balance, give back plenty in return. Those which are known to not be working can be fixed. Everyone agrees they should be protected from swingeing cuts -- so whatever happens that should not be forgotten.