Vincent Hogan: 'I think it's worth reminding the tax-payer that their money is well spent when athletes do well'
Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar talks to Vincent Hogan about regrets, World Cup ambitions and why he stands by achievements
Published 19/12/2013 | 02:30
On a table inside the door of Leo Varadkar's office sit three hurleys, one of them tattooed with signatures. The scribbled names belong to those who won the All-Ireland Feile for Castleknock in 2007.
Varadkar would never pretend to be a devout GAA man, but he is loyal to his constituency and, increasingly, mindful of Gaelic games' capacity to inspire entire communities.
At 34, he is the country's youngest ever Minister for Sport and, having competed in three triathlons during the past year, most probably the fittest.
Widely considered a future leader of Fine Gael, he currently juggles the three portfolios of Transport, Tourism and Sport, though is quick to point out that -- technically -- the number may be closer to five, given his responsibility for maritime and aviation.
We caught up with him to discuss a broad range of sporting issues, including criticism of cuts to government funding for sport in the recent budget.
Some people have been quite judgmental about you in terms of the perception of your interest in sport. Do you feel there's a fair public depiction of you?
"Well first of all I have to admit it's entirely self-inflicted. I did an interview on 'Morning Ireland' the day after the Cabinet was appointed, having been given the brief of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
"I was a little bit surprised by it too, quite frankly, because Jimmy Deenihan in particular has a very strong pedigree in sport and Simon Coveney would be very much associated with sailing and so on.
"So I was a little bit surprised that sport was part of my brief and I gave this kind of fluffed answer about having played a bit of cricket as a kid and a bit of rugby in school, but not being hugely into sport.
"And I didn't do myself any justice with that answer."
It's been recycled quite a bit too, hasn't it?
"It has yeah, but that's politics for you. I could have given a better answer, but what is absolutely true to say is that there are some people, including my own secretary general and my own special advisor, who are absolute sports fanatics and follow every sport.
"If you ever wanted to bring someone to a table quiz, they'd fit the bill. I've never been that person. But I've been going to Leinster games for as long as I can remember. I played rugby in school, still play for the Oireachtas team a couple of times a year."
But I suspect a rural Irish interpretation exists that maybe you opportunistically adopted, for example, the Dubs. When they won the All-Ireland in 2011, you issued a statement congratulating them. Did you have any qualms about doing that as a government minister?
"I didn't at the time (laughing), because I'd started attending the games. I'd been to one or two matches ages ago, but then I started attending the games properly when I was appointed to the brief.
"I think I went to all of them that year and we kept winning. I'm very attached to Dublin, if I wasn't necessarily attached to the GAA at the time.
"It's very social as well as being very enjoyable from the sporting point of view and I suppose I kind of got caught up in it; The last kick of the game (Stephen Cluxton's free).
"So, yeah, I don't really do that now do I? (laughing) When Leinster won the Heineken Cup, I didn't put out a statement. Or maybe I did. I think when they beat Ulster I didn't. So I suppose you make that distinction when they've beaten another Irish team."
But that's my point about 2011. Why should people in Kerry feel that the Minister for Sport is happy that they've been beaten?
"Yeah, look you're probably right. What I would tend to do now is not issue a statement where an Irish team beats another Irish team. But I don't do a huge amount of that anyway. Just issuing statements congratulating everyone is a bit ... "
You don't, but one of your colleagues does. I wonder do you have a view on that? If anyone in Irish sport as much as passes wind, there's a statement issued.
"Well it's a difficult dilemma sometimes, because I've this memory as a child of Charlie Haughey going off to Paris when Stephen Roche won the Tour de France. I was a child interested in politics and I kind of said to myself, 'Well, I'll never do that. That's really bloody cynical'.
"I hope that people don't think that my interest in Dublin GAA is contrived. I guess it's when I'm doing another job and still going to the matches, people might believe it's real. I'll have bought my Parnell pass at that stage! But I never wanted to be seen as jumping on the bandwagon of somebody's sporting success. I didn't like that as a citizen. I think a lot of people don't.
"At the same time, it's important to remind the tax-payer that some of their money is being well spent investing in these athletes. Sometimes, that's forgotten. Sometimes, they even forget it themselves.
"I remember a quote from one athlete, who I won't name, who said that they got no support from the government, but a lot of support from the Sports Council. Where does the Sports Council get its money from?
"So I think it's worth reminding the tax-payer that their money is well spent when athletes do well and it's also worth reminding the sporting community."
But surely only in exceptional cases?
"Yeah. So it's rare enough, something like Rob Heffernan winning, but that is a judgment call I suppose. I don't always get it right, but I try to."
You have pictures on your Twitter page with some Dublin footballers, but their names aren't captioned. Do you know who they are?
"Yeah there's one with Johnny Cooper, there's a picture with Dermo (Diarmuid Connolly) and there's one with Stephen Cluxton."
That was a trick question, but you've passed the test.
"Don't ask me to name the entire team though (laughing). A good few of them are constituents by the way, though not those!"
Sport is often seen as an after-thought in government, tagged on as the last bit of an extensive portfolio. How much time and focus can you give sport or do you do most of it on the hoof?
"No, most things are planned or scheduled. It's the stuff that comes from left-field that you can't plan for. Of a budget of about €1.4bn, next year it (sport) will get about €119m.
"So it's about 7 or 8pc of the budget and the number of staff working the division is maybe 30. So I suppose it's about 10pc of the department. But certainly it takes up more than that in time, because it's quite engaged.
"First of all, there's a lot of public engagements. I don't have to go to them, but I like to. I think the smaller sporting bodies appreciate it a lot when they get the recognition of having a minister there."
So what was your reaction to the heavy criticism of another funding cut in the recent budget, the sixth in a row, putting funding back to '06 levels?
"I suppose that's part of the reason why I was keen to do this interview. When Michael Ring and I sat down nearly three years ago, there really were four priorities.
"The first was as much as possible to protect funding for sport. The second was to get the National Sports Campus up and running, something I'm particularly committed to. Then, to get the Sports Capital Grants going again.
"We've done one round of that already for the clubs and the national governing bodies. And then to get sport recognised properly in education. That isn't under our remit, but we've a role to play in it. And that's gone quite well too in the sense that it's going to be a core subject in the Junior Cert for next year, which I think is a big deal.
"The next step will, hopefully, be to get it in as a Leaving Cert subject with points attached so that it's similar to art or music.
"I suppose what I was a little bit concerned about was that the wrong message was going out about funding for sport. The Federation (of Irish Sport) in fairness to them tends to mistake funding of the Sports Council with funding for sport.
"But there are four streams of funding for sport. There's the Sports Council, the Sports Campus, the Sports Capital Programme and the Swimming Pool Programme. I can understand why they think the way they do."
Sarah O'Connor, the Federation's chief executive, argued that grassroots organisations are being cut relentlessly and, rather than putting money into facilities, you should focus on the people who play sport.
"Yeah and there's a valid point in that if it wasn't the case that capital had been cut much more over the years than current. Actually if you look at the sports budget, and I think any reasonable person understands that nearly every budget in the country is being cut in some way, the cut has been very heavily on the capital side, not on the current side.
"So, her point is valid, but I don't think they appreciate the extent to which the current budget was protected over the capital budget for exactly that reason.
"Also I think the Federation kind of speaks for its members who are the NGBs (National Governing Bodies) and the LSPs (Local Sports Partnerships).
"And their major concern of course is for the people who work for those bodies and how cuts may impact on them. My duty is a broader one. It's to look after the clubs, to look after participation on the ground. And when I talk to tax-payers, what they say to me is that they're just as interested in the facilities for their club as they are in how many people work in head office.
"Bear in mind it is the tax-payers who pay and the politicians who decide where it goes. So the people who are beneficiaries shouldn't call all the shots. That's where I think maybe we go a different way.
"What we're actually looking at is an increase in funding for sport overall from €72m to €93.4m. Now in an austerity budget with €2.5bn in cuts and tax increases, I don't think that's doing all that badly.
"There is a cut in the Sports Council budget of about 3pc. I explained all that to them (the Federation), but I don't think they quite understood it. I don't micro-manage the Sports Council, but I do give policy advice.
"And what I've said to them is to protect the smaller NGBs as much as possible, because they don't have access to commercial income. And I said it was to protect women in sport and also those who performed particularly well, like the Paralympians and the boxers.
"So a lot of the stuff that's gone around from the Federation just isn't based on fact unfortunately.
"And what they've actually done is made my job harder. Because when I try to convince people within this department and across the way (Leinster House) to allow me to move money around my own department, which is essentially what I've done here to protect sport, it's hard to do when you have a lobby group that isn't working with you.
"That's not the way the Hotels Federation operate, it's not the way the Tourism Industry Federation operates. We worked as a team to keep the vat at 9pc and the Federation doesn't think that way. I think its focus is too narrow, it's too interested in the NGBs and LSPs and the people who work there rather than the broader sporting picture.
"If you look at the statement they released, funding for sport to them was what went to the Sports Council and nothing else. I don't think there was any recognition in the Federation's statement, maybe way down in paragraph 26 or something, that there actually had been an overall increase in funding for sport."
The history of Sports Ministers in Ireland is one of people having little real say in the corridors of power. Are you satisfied that you are being listened to in terms of your priorities for Sport?
"Yes. Look at the budget we inherited from the last government -- we have increased it. I can't make any of these decisions without the sign-off of the Public Spending Department and the government, so yeah I am being listened to. Would I like to be able to spend more across my brief? Yeah, of course I would."
You have announced an increase in funding for the new Indoor Arena at the Sports Campus. Why?
"There's €13m in next year for facilities at the campus. There's a lot happening out there. There's the Aquatic Centre, the FAI headquarters, the Institute of Sport, the Equestrian Centre, on January 23 then the pavilions -- 17 all-weather pitches open for use to general community.
"The GAA should start on their facilities in the new year. This will allow us do the first bit of the arena, essentially an extension to the Institute of Sport. A short running track, a bit like they have in Morton, but better.
"Strength and conditioning facilities for the boxers to do their training, some accommodation on site, so that swimmers and others can stay there if they're using the Aquatic Centre. Then get started on the mega-arena itself."
What is the time-scale for completion?
"The arena will go to tender next year. It's going to take two or three years to build. That's why we were inclined to take out the strength and conditioning and do it ahead of time. That means it can be used within the current Olympic cycle. The rest of the Indoor Arena, by the time it's built and ready for occupation, you're certainly talking 2016, so it wouldn't be any good for pre-Rio."
Do you have a view on the savage rate increases being proposed for Croke Park (€528,000 to €2.1m) and The Aviva (€437,000 to €2.4m)?
"Yes I do, it's something that I'm very concerned about. I've met the heads of the IRFU and the GAA about it. And I've met Brendan Howlin about it, because the valuation is under him. We're trying to come up with a solution. It's a big hike all of a sudden. They don't have a problem paying rates, it's just the hike being so big, so dramatic. They're actually in valuations, appealing it at the moment, so that's where it's at.
"I'd be hopeful of some sort of mitigation anyway. But there is an anomaly in that the national museums and the national theatre are exempt and what you could argue are our national stadiums are not.
"On the other hand, our cultural institutions are owned by the state and the stadiums aren't. If you are to exempt them, what about every other stadium? But I think a solution can be found that everyone can live with."
What is the current status of the proposed bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup?
"Well the government made an informed decision within certain parameters and told me to get on with it. The next step now is to engage more intensively with the two ministers in the north.
"Michael Ring and I are going to meet Caral Ni Chuilin and Arlene Foster in the new year and then set up a Tripartite committee involving IRFU, the Executive in the North and us and pursue it that way.
"The bid doesn't actually have to be in until 2016, but you need to be getting the groundwork done now. I've talked to a lot of people about this and three things that really hit me were: (1) get out there first; (2) it does require government leadership, the sporting bodies alone can't do it; (3) not to spend money too quickly, to actually wait until nearer the time before you start major investment."
Is there a ballpark price on the cost of a bid?
"Yeah, it's not enormous. It's less than a million."
And the government would underwrite that?
"Well that's all to be worked out, but I think we'd kind of have to. There'll be no blank cheques, not from here, nor from Stormont. But this is a bid for a stadium of six million people to paraphrase the New Zealand bid. That all has to be worked out, but there will have to be a significant government contribution to the cost of running the bid."
Do you see this as a pet project of yours?
"Well I'm really into it and I think that we can do it. I think it's about the biggest international event that Ireland could possibly host. I think we could do it really well and I think we can get it."
There's going to have to be such a GAA involvement, would the final be held in Croke Park?
"The final would have to be in Croke Park; probably the semis as well."
Grants to GAA players have been reduced at a time when there are still attractive tax incentives for professional sports people here. What's your view on that?
"Well the cut has been about 10pc, which is significant, but not out of line with a lot of the cuts that are happening across the board.
"They deserve to be recognised. They are Irish athletes, many of whom are effectively training at a professional level. One thing I would have preferred -- and this was never my call, this was up to the GPA -- was if it had been more high-performance based.
"It's a small amount of money because a huge number of players get it. When you look at the money that goes to High Performance athletes, podium athletes, the GPA grants are much more democratic.
"They go to a wider range of people. I would have preferred to come up with a High Performance-type model, where the grants would have gone to the ones who are really up there with elite athletes. In the end that was the GPA's call."
But that idea would fly in the face of the traditional democracy of the GAA?
"It would yeah and we have to accept that. But that is one of the reasons why the grants are so modest. It's because the GAA and the GPA, given their philosophy, wanted it to be applied right across the board."
You have expressed reservations about the move to ban alcohol sponsorship in sport. Is there not a glaring anomaly in removing it from sport, but allowing it for concerts and film festivals? What is your fundamental view on it?
"Well first of all, it's not decided yet. I don't actually agree with this distinction, but others have made it, that sport is a healthy pursuit and to associate health with alcohol is wrong.
"And that also it's particularly more exposed to children. There wouldn't be many children at Oxegen or the Cork Jazz Festival. Young people maybe, but certainly not children.
"That's the argument that is used to make the distinction between sports sponsorship and sponsorship of the arts. I'm not sure I really buy that. And the other thing that I've a general difficulty with is the nanny state in general, which is a state telling people what they can and can't do."
Is there any evidence connecting drink sponsorship with drinking patterns?
"People argue there is and let's be honest, I can't really believe that the industry would spend huge amounts of money on advertising if they didn't think it would work.
"I do think some of the ads are a bit inappropriate. I think it's probably not right to connect drinking alcohol with sporting prowess."
Is it your gut instinct that the ban will happen?
"My view has always been that I just don't like the idea of the nanny state moving into those areas. The over-riding priority for me is that if this is going to cost sport financially, then there needs to be an alternative mechanism for funding sport."
You are considered potentially a future leader of Fine Gael, what would you say to the cynical view that you are just waiting for a Cabinet reshuffle so that you can take up a more senior position?
"Well I spend no time lying in bed at night thinking about being Fine Gael leader or Taoiseach or anything of the sort. I'm very grateful to be in the government in the first place.
"I didn't support Enda (Kenny) in the heave and all the rest of it, so I'm very grateful that he chose me to be in the government. I've found this brief really interesting, really challenging.
"If there is a reshuffle and I'm staying here, I'll be delighted, but I'm always up for another challenge as well. If the opportunity ever arises, I think it's a long way away and you could torture yourself with posturing and being too careful in order to satisfy some sort of ambition that may never arise anyway.
"There's too many people in politics who are too worried about making any mistakes or offending anyone or taking any risks because it might jeopardise their career prospects. I suppose I have the luxury of having an alternative job to go back to (he practised as a GP before entering politics).
"This is very challenging, but I do get to sleep every night -- which didn't always happen as a doctor!"
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