Tuesday 28 February 2017

Jobs plan misses yet another open goal

John Greene

John Greene

It has to be said that when it comes to sport, the jobs initiative announced recently by the government was a disappointment. More than that, in fact, it was an opportunity missed.

The dynamics of the Irish political landscape shifted dramatically last February. But we are still waiting to get a clear idea of where this new government is going with regard to its attitudes to sport. Sure there is a balance to be struck between dealing with the overwhelming financial hole the country is in and cracking on with the business of just simply governing a people and all the everyday things -- big and small -- that that entails.

And we know that the government and its senior people in the key ministries are getting on with the former, so now we need to see that the rest of the country's political arm is functioning; that it is devising policies for implementation, leading out with innovative ideas, engaging with stakeholders to determine weaknesses in systems and looking to iron out the mistakes of the previous regime.

Sport, of course, along with its old bedfellow tourism, has moved home again and is now bunking in with transport and the clear sense is that this awkward allegiance has taken time to gel. And, as if to compound matters further, unlikely partners in Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring have been thrown into bed together too.

For a lot of people, sport is a serious business. It doesn't matter whether you are an elite athlete preparing for next year's Olympics or a junior B club footballer getting ready for a championship game. Sport, of course, is fun too but on your own terms. You can be serious about it, yet derive enormous fun and pleasure from it too.

Which is why it can be so disheartening to see politicians playing silly games with sport. Sometimes, the carry-on of our politicians in the Dáil goes beyond the pointless and ventures into the realm of the downright disrespectful.

The Sports Capital Programme is a case in point. It was scrapped by Fianna Fáil when the squeeze first started to come on the country's finances in 2008. (And the irony should not be lost that something which became a slush fund for senior ministers to featherbed their constituencies, and their powerbase, when times were good was so rapidly done away with when the money was less plentiful.)

Right up to the end of its days the outgoing government continued to insist that the programme was open for business and doling out money for worthy projects around the country. The truth, of course, was rather different as the money being handed out was actually for back-dated projects.

And yet, in recent days, Fianna Fáil has made a mockery of the political system, and in doing so exposed its own deceits and misdirections in sports policy. Take Barry Cowen, brother of the former Taoiseach, who directed a question to Michael Ring, the minister of state with responsibility for tourism and sport, last week asking if the sports capital programme will be reinstated and opened to new applications.

Cowen is not alone. The previous week Charlie McConalogue asked Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if he had "plans to restore the sports capital grants" -- the very one his party insisted had not been stopped. Damn your principles, stick to your party, as Disraeli said.

Fine Gael's Jerry Buttimer made a passionate plea in favour of restoring the programme in the Seanad last November: "I hope the minister of state will look at it from the point of view of creating employment, generating VAT and tax returns for the Government, and creating great goodwill and hope among people and uplifting them," he said. "I hope we will look at this provision of extra facilities for young people and those in communities as a means of regeneration."

The Corkman, an opposition senator then, has a louder voice now as a TD in government so one hopes he continues to make his plea. Yes, it is true that the country has no money, but a chance was missed in the jobs initiative to create employment by investing in sporting infrastructural projects.

In January '09, then Minister for Sport Martin Cullen -- who took the decision to suspend the programme -- conceded in the Dáil that "every €1 the State gives triggers approximately €2 locally".

The construction of sports facilities in communities generates employment, which of course benefits the state, but also leaves a lasting impact on the health and well-being of people. There is a statistic that every euro spent on children saves the state €7 when they become adults.

The problem is that politicians view sport as a toy, and when it's time to be serious and stop playing, it is put back in the corner. But a closed mind is like a closed book. Did anyone involved in putting the jobs initiative together ever think, even for a moment, if there are revenue-neutral possibilities in sport?

In fact, so far the only insight into the government's thinking on this issue has come not from Varadkar or Ring, but Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. In March, before the jobs initiative was completed, Deenihan said there would be a new sports capital programme, "although I cannot say when".

Interestingly, he also made the following revelation: "A large amount of money -- something like €77 million -- is unspent at the moment and has been so for some time. If there are clubs that can go ahead with their developments, the money should be moved on to them. It should be used and not left for a long period." Why wasn't this included in the jobs initiative?

It is time to start thinking outside the box.

Sunday Indo Sport

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