Saturday 22 October 2016

John Greene: Sport deserves bigger part in political debate

Published 21/02/2016 | 14:00

Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

The Irish sporting community will watch events next weekend with interest, waiting to see who will form the next government and what that will mean for sport. There has been more money available for sport in the last few years as the country's economy recovers, but that is not the be all and end all - the personalities involved and the direction taken are important too.

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The government has put a lot of store in the sports capital grants, and that has played well. But there is more to sport than these grants, as Fianna Fail discovered five years ago. The current regime deserves some credit, having introduced the National Physical Activity Plan and created a new body, Sport Ireland, to oversee all aspects of Irish sport, including the continued expansion of the National Sports Campus at Abbottstown. There is more of a culture of understanding now that proper policies around sport and physical activity are vital for society. That said, as a nation we still have a long way to go.

It is in some ways reassuring that sport features more prominently in political manifestos in this election than ever before. There is a mix of the good and the bad - some old platitudes mixed in with some new thinking - but that there is a greater political acknowledgement of the value of sport is a welcome step in the right direction. Hopefully, we are moving away from the days when the basis of our national sports policy appeared to be just about throwing cash around in return for votes.

It's still a bit much to expect sport to be part of the general debate in the run-up to Friday's vote, but that day will come. We are a long way off reaching maturity in our attitude to sport - the narrative is still sadly driven by the notion that we are a sports-mad nation, passionate supporters, and this infiltrates the political establishment.

If you look at the issues which traditionally dominate the political discourse - issues which have been front and centre in this uninspiring election campaign too - there is a much broader role for sport. Benefits around health are obvious, and thankfully the message in this area is starting to get through. The same applies to tourism, where sport can be a driver of visitor numbers through high-profile events. The positive links between sport and education, sport and social inclusion, sport and the decline of rural Ireland are less well explored. When you think of the enormous damage that has been inflicted on rural Ireland, you can see the role played by local sporting organisations in keeping communities alive. This applies particularly - though not exclusively - to the GAA.

And the success of the FAI's programme of late-night league games in Dublin clearly shows that anti-social behaviour falls dramatically when an organised sporting programme is put in place, so sport can even be included in the conversation around crime.

This notion of a wider appreciation of its value has been pushed for some time by those involved in shaping Irish sport. There is still a way to go, it seems, to convince wider society of the value of sport.

We still have parents who think it is a good idea to keep their children away from sporting activity in exam years, operating under some misguided notion that this time away from study is time that cannot be spared; we still struggle to provide a structured programme of physical activity for children in a lot of our schools; we are still hurtling into an obesity crisis.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour have some good ideas in their manifestos, and whatever the outcome of the election it would be nice to think the next government will continue to develop sports policy - with particular emphasis on greater community engagement and support.

As Rob Hartnett, founder of Sport for Business, wrote on his website on Friday: "Political promises can be elusive to pin down after an election, but the fact they have been made is a positive. We need to ask the questions of those who seek our vote so that sport and the many and varied benefits it brings to society will continue an upward trajectory in our political thinking."

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