Tuesday 28 March 2017

Hanafin primed to exercise her power

In the minister's first interview on sport, she outlines plans to get participation levels up, writes Alan Ruddock

Alan Ruddock

What to make of Mary Hanafin, the new minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport? Her name is not yet on the door of her office, her department's brass plate has yet to be changed, but Hanafin is already in the thick of it.

Last week she faced questioning in the Dail on the High Court settlement between Athletics Ireland, the Irish Sports Council and Mary Coghlan, the former chief executive of AI, as well as a debate on obesity and the role that sport can play in creating a healthier society. Like all skilled politicians, she changes horses with ease: one day social welfare, the next sport, the transition almost seamless once the initial disappointment of the perceived demotion has been shrugged to one side.

So far, Hanafin's approach has been cautious. She batted away questions on the Coghlan case last week, taking cover in the report that was commissioned by her predecessor Martin Cullen. She expects that report in the next couple of weeks and is not concerned that Cullen asked the ISC to report on itself: she has the transcripts of the first four days of the case that set out Coghlan's complaints of inappropriate interference by the ISC in the affairs of Athletics Ireland, a case attended each day by one of her senior civil servants. She will have both sides of the story, and she will be alert to any bias in the ISC's self-assessment. On broader policy, Hanafin opted for generalities over specifics but she did lay down some foundations.

Hanafin has two years to make a difference in a department where sport is the poor relation of tourism and culture -- both identified as key policy areas by Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach.

Her priority, she says, is to increase participation, and the place to start is with young children. "The investment in sport is designed to encourage participation at all levels, particularly children at a young age . . . and it's valuable in developing a sense of community as well as the health of the nation." She starts at a good, and bad, time. The early indications are that recession has damaged already low participation levels: the Irish Sports Monitor for 2008 revealed a two percentage point drop to just under 31 per cent, with the fall off most pronounced in low income households.

The figures, she says "are very, very bad". That does not mean, however, that Hanafin plans to alter the flow of funds that the ISC disburses to Irish sport. She does not accept that funding has been skewed towards elite sport at the expense of participation in recent years, arguing that the sports that receive funding are themselves engaged in boosting the numbers of people playing and volunteering.

Hanafin believes that quality facilities are essential to increasing participation and hopes to squeeze "a few bob" out of the department of finance to revive the Sports Capital Grants programme next year, albeit on a smaller scale. Her new department is conducting an audit of all the facilities that have been built over the past decade. It is, she says, a mapping exercise and will include all new educational facilities that have also come on stream.

"There are definitely gaps [and] the audit will show areas of sport that are missing out. The days of the very big grants are gone -- there will have to be smaller grants. I'm not into white elephants, but facilities do encourage people to participate."

She rejects the notion that previous grants were all about politics, not sports strategy. "You'd a blank canvass 10 years ago," she says, brushing aside any suggestion that the constituencies of sports ministers received vastly disproportionate funding ("you might have had a little more in Donegal and Kerry, but not much"). There was, she says, merit in spending money anywhere because the need was so great, and there is still need, particularly in areas of disadvantage.

The recent spate of high-profile rows and management problems in Irish sport -- from athletics to motorsport, basketball and badminton -- have highlighted the poor levels of governance that exist in many sports, but Hanafin does not believe that strict rules on governance can be made a precondition for government funding. Guidelines, yes; rules no.

She does, however, believe that signing up for Joint Sport Ireland's fledgling arbitration process could be made a condition because it directly impacts on use of the public money that funds the organisations. And while she would like to see more private sector money funding sport, she offers little hope of any change in sport's charitable status, which would allow tax relief on sports sponsorship.

She will be judged, she says, on participation, which is "harder to measure but easier to promote . . . I'll put my energies into supporting the clubs and there's value in a promotional role."

The foundations, after less than a fortnight, seem clear enough: Sports Capital Grants will return in some form before the next election, but the mapping exercise will bring strategic direction to counter the inevitable political pressure for local projects; good governance remains an objective rather than a requirement; arbitration will move mainstream. Increasing participation is Hanafin's stated priority, but there will be no fundamental shift in the way sport is funded. More energy, more sparkle, but for the moment the policies stay the same.

Sunday Independent

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