Saturday 25 March 2017

This Government has a proud record on sport - and there is more to come

Paschal Donohoe
Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe

In last week's Sunday Independent John Greene's passionate defence of the importance of sport suggested that upcoming administrative changes in my Department could damage the standing of sport, and with it, its voice in government.

I share John's passion for sport in our society and Minister of State Michael Ring and I work every day to translate this passion into support. However, I believe his concern for the future is misplaced. The new arrangements for sport within my Department will, in fact, allow sport play a much more meaningful role in how we devise policy and help the sector grow.

Over €400m has been invested by the Exchequer in sport since this government came into office. I am very proud of this.

For example, the Sports Capital Programme (SCP) was reintroduced in 2011. This programme is absolutely vital in assisting voluntary and community organisations, national governing bodies of sport, local authorities and in some cases VECs and schools to develop great facilities in local communities and to provide equipment to help maximise participation in sport.

Crucially, the SCP, administered by Minister Ring, prioritises the needs of disadvantaged areas, giving both children and adults who previously may only have experienced sport as spectators a real opportunity to become active participants.

At a time of great strain in the public finances, we have funded three rounds of the programme over the last four years, at a total cost of over €110m, which has helped sporting clubs and associations, voluntary groups and schools all over the country. We did so while protecting the current funding of sport from the scale of cutbacks in other sectors, dedicating over €220m to the Irish Sports Council, and indeed securing an extra €1m current funding to help sporting bodies prepare athletes for the Rio Olympics next year.

Similarly, we have ensured major investment in the National Sports Campus, resulting in the opening of the National Horse Sport Arena, a National Diving Training Centre, the development of high performance training facilities for modern pentathlon participants - unique to Europe - and multi-sports synthetic pitches for GAA, soccer, rugby and hockey. Work has also commenced on a National Indoor Arena, which has long been considered to be the missing piece in our national sporting infrastructure.

Irish Sports HQ, an administrative base for 19 national governing bodies, also opened its doors in April 2013 and plans are well advanced for the construction of a new HQ for Special Olympics Ireland at the Campus,

At a policy level, the Sport Ireland Bill was guided through the Oireachtas by Minister Ring before the summer recess, allowing for the upcoming merger of the Irish Sports Council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority into a new, streamlined and dynamic Sport Ireland body to drive the future of sport in this country forward.

These are all positive developments. But we cannot stand still, and we need to ensure that we have the appropriate arrangements in place to ensure we can continue to assist the sporting sector.

At the moment, the Assistant Secretary with responsibility for sport in my Department is also responsible for other functions, including human resources and the Department's own economic and financial evaluation unit. Simultaneously, the Assistant Secretary in charge of Tourism is responsible for a lot of other matters too. So, in essence, both sport and tourism have half an Assistant Secretary's time at the moment.

Under the new arrangements, the sport and tourism areas will be the sole focus for one Assistant Secretary, allowing us to concentrate on these two important sectors while seeing how sport can boost tourism and vice versa. It is not, as John suggested, "time taken away" from sport. Rather, it will allow sport be considered as it should be - a driver not just of good health and community spirit, but also as a driver of the economy and in particular our tourism industry.

In forging closer links between sport and tourism at this point, I am particularly conscious of our forthcoming bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The tourism division in my department has been leading the work on this to date, in close co-operation with the IRFU and Northern Ireland officials as well as their colleagues in the sports division. Our focus, in this case, is on the huge economic and tourism spin off that would come with hosting such a huge and prestigious sporting event in this country, without neglecting the opportunities it would present in sporting terms. The good work done to date on this is a demonstration of how updating responsibilities at senior management level will strengthen both tourism and sport.

We are making the bid having staged a successful Giro d'Italia in 2014 and having heard at last year's European Sports Tourism Summit, held in Limerick, that revenue from sports tourism into Ireland could potentially double in the coming years if we have the right policies and supports in place.

Let us not forget, either, the successful bid to co-host the 2020 UEFA European Championships in soccer, where the work of the Department in supporting the FAI's bid was critical, and which will give Ireland a huge tourism and sporting boost.

That is not at all to say that sport will in future only be viewed through the prism of its tourism benefits. We will shortly be publishing the National Physical Activity Plan together with the Department of Health with a view to increasing physical activity amongst adults and children and improving health and wellbeing. I also intend to launch a consultation on Ireland's first National Sports Policy Framework in due course, which will cover all facets of sport and its benefits, and will set the strategic direction for the new body, Sport Ireland.

These past achievements and future plans show, I hope, that the future of sport within our government is absolutely secure.

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is meeting those who participate in, organise and administer sport in this country.

Most sporting organisations in this country are powered by an army of volunteers each determined to grow their sport and make it thrive. This brings with it huge responsibility for me. As Minister, it is my job to ensure sporting organisations have as much support as possible in turning their plans for growth into a reality.

I am proud to say that my Department, Minister of State Michael Ring and myself take this responsibility hugely seriously. We share John's huge passion for sport, and we will continue to show it.

Paschal Donohoe is TD for Dublin Central and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

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