Sunday 28 May 2017

Allen on board for change in direction

John Greene

John Greene

The appointment of Bernard Allen to the board of the Irish Sports Council was confirmed yesterday. Allen, a former Fine Gael TD and the country's first ever Minister for Sport, takes the seat round the table vacated by Eamonn Coghlan's move to the Seanad.

Allen's appointment is certainly a curious one. On the face of it, he is an insider, a Fine Gael loyalist who served in the trenches of both government and opposition for three decades.

It was during his term of office as Minister for Sport in the mid-1990s that the seeds were sown for a change in direction in Irish sports funding. He appointed John Treacy to chair a review body charged with producing a strategy for Irish sport and it was out of this that the Irish Sports Council came into being.

By the time the ISC was formally constituted in legislation in 1999, Allen and Fine Gael were gone from government -- to return only this year -- but Treacy was the man in position and he was confirmed as the council's first CEO. He has been reappointed to the position twice since.

Allen, then, has gone full circle. And he joins the ISC board at a time when it is likely that some tough decisions will have to be made over the next three months. Cuts, cuts, and more cuts.

The other members of the board are Susan Ahern, Colm Brennan, John Byrne, Ginny Elliott, Jim Glennon, Frances Kavanagh, Brian Mullins and Sheila Flanagan, and the chairman is Kieran Mulvey. There is already an interesting dynamic at play in the current board, which appears less well disposed towards the council's executive than previous boards. Into this mix comes Allen with his background of ministerial experience, political nous and -- it must be said -- a strong feel for grassroots sport. (Allen is the vice-president of Rockmount, the Cork city club which launched Roy Keane's career.)

The ISC, of course, has had its own difficulties over the last two years but there have also been some extraordinary revelations regarding some of the national governing bodies it funds, such as Athletics Ireland and Basketball Ireland.

Which is where Allen's appointment becomes curious. Because he is also a former chair of the Public Accounts Committee. And the current minister, Leo Varadkar, was keen to play this up when confirming Allen's appointment yesterday.

"Mr Allen was also the recent chairman of the Public Accounts Committee," said the minister. "This is particularly relevant given that the Comptroller and Auditor General has raised concerns about the manner in which State agencies manage their money, as well as concerns about the use of sports grants by particular clubs and national governing bodies."

Varadkar also rejected the charge that he had turned his back on his own post-election promise to have appointments of this nature carried out in a more transparent manner. Last March, he sought what he called expressions of interest from people interested in state board positions as they arise in his transport, tourism and sport brief and it emerged yesterday that Allen formally applied to the minister during this process. He has also offered to fulfill the role on a pro bono basis.

"Bernard Allen is by far the best person for the job, out of all the people who applied to the Department earlier this year," added the minister. "He has a keen interest in sport and the governance of sport."

Perhaps, then, he will be the minister's eyes and ears. Whatever, it is safe to assume that he will take an interest in expenditure at the council, and also in process.

Government departments have submitted their proposals for how savings can be made in the forthcoming Budget and they are under consideration at the moment so in that context it is interesting to note Varadkar's reasoning for Allen's appointment and also comments made recently by Michael Ring, the minister for state responsible for sport.

In a lively appearance before the Seanad in a debate on sport recently, which featured a strong performance by Eamonn Coghlan, Ring had this to say to the former ISC board member: "As the senator knows, tourism and sport are easy touches, but taking money from them would be a wrong decision by the government. It is important that we hold what we have. We must undertake a total review and target our money."

Having then acknowledged the work of the ISC, Ring added, tellingly: "However, there is no harm in reviewing it and its operations to ensure it is implementing Government policy. The Department provides its funding, so it must be accountable to us. That it is being reviewed is good."

Ring is a strong advocate of participation and grassroots sport, something which was also a hallmark of Allen's term in office. Allen is also known to hold a view that participation in sport suffered during the boom years, believing funding was not properly targeted, prioritising what he saw as grand projects over getting young people active.

So are we seeing the first signs of a change in direction? And what is the precise nature of this review? We know funding for sport will be cut in December but not by how much. Once the size of the cut is confirmed, it will fall on the Irish Sports Council to administer and apportion the lion's share of those reductions and as ever there will be a difficult balance to be struck between funding at the elite end and supporting participation. The soundings so far are that this government has a preference for the latter, even if so far there has been nothing concrete to back that up.

During that Seanad appearance, Ring did say this: "Given the benefits associated with sporting activities, the Government regards expenditure on sport as important for the social and economic development of the country. These benefits arise in a wide range of areas including health and well-being, social and cultural development, education, personal development, tourism and the economy." He added: "Increasing the levels of participation in sport is vital to ensuring that these benefits continue and this is one of the key functions of the Irish Sports Council."

The next couple of months are crucial with some critical decisions to be taken which will impact on sport in Ireland for several years to come.

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