Saturday 25 February 2017

Left high and dry by the parish pump code

A philospher once declared that a man who is not a fool can rid himself of every folly except vanity. Eliminated after the fourth count in the Kerry South constituency last Saturday, outgoing TD John O'Donoghue addressed the gathering with words which may in time come to be the epitaph of the outgoing government.

"I hope that the irony will not be lost upon you, that I stand here on my evening of defeat, in a hall, this magnificent sports complex, which I helped to build."

O'Donoghue was speaking in the Killarney Sports and Leisure Centre, which cost €16m to build, including a contribution of over €5m from the state, and was officially opened by the former sports minister in 2009. The centre is home to a 25-metre pool, a state-of-the-art gym, treatment rooms, a fitness studio and, according to its website, the county's largest indoor sports arena.

But the complex, which is operated privately on behalf of the local council, has not been without its controversies. The Irish Times reported last week that the pool has struggled financially and hoteliers in the area with their own leisure pools threatened legal action last year against the subsidised facility on grounds of unfair competition. This particular irony may have been lost on O'Donoghue.

There are other ironies too. Like the fact that decision-making when it came to capital investment in sport was influenced as much, if not more, by political concerns than strategic ones. And that O'Donoghue, when he was sports minister, looked after his own constituency and -- as he has demonstrated -- considered this a virtue and not a flaw in a system which too often saw sports funding used as a political slush fund.

O'Donoghue's South Kerry constituency did far better than North Kerry during his five-year term as sports minister. He took up office in June 2002. In that year, the county received just over €3.3m, split almost equally between the two constituencies. In 2004, €3m went into the county, with over two-thirds of that (€2.1m) going into the minister's constituency. In 2007, of the €3.55m awarded, €2.25m was for South Kerry.

Not that he was alone. The sports capital programme was used by successive ministers for sport and finance to the benefit of their own areas. Last year, academic and journalist Jane Suiter wrote: "Clubs in their [sports and finance ministers] constituencies receive more money in total, receive a greater amount per application, are more likely to make successful applications, and are more likely to have more successful applications than others."

The problem is that ministers were rewarded for their actions by being returned time after time to the Dáil. The lavish spending was an electoral bribe, and it worked too, at least until last weekend. O'Donoghue, for instance, was first elected in 1987 and the people of South Kerry returned him in five subsequent elections. In his first election, he received 5,606 first preference votes. When last elected five years ago, this had jumped to 9,128 -- a ringing endorsement from the electorate that as far as they were concerned he was doing something right.

O'Donoghue's parting words may have been conceited and dripping with arrogance, but they were partly born out of the privileges he was afforded -- particularly during his time as sports minister -- so long as the money kept flowing. Last Friday week, people voted for change. The message is that they want our politics and our politicians to change and they now must let them do so by holding them to account primarily on national issues.

If sport retains a seat at the cabinet table, then the incoming minister must take up his or her post with a clear mind. He or she must forget the practices of the past and be steadfast in the pursuit of policies which have clear and attainable targets, which are not based on political patronage but on tangible, identifiable benefits that can accrue, and which offer the best return on the investment.

At some point, the sports capital project will return, probably greatly scaled down, but when it does its implementation must be radically different to the previous incarnation

Although Fine Gael's pre-election policy material on sport was far from comprehensive, it did contain a promise to publish a national sports facility audit which it will use to inform future investment on infrastructure. Labour included a similar pledge in its sports policy document. In fact, Labour's document on sports policy was far and away the most comprehensive of any party so don't be surprised if it forms the basis of the incoming government's thinking in this area.

And the further parish pump politics is kept away from the portfolio, the better for all.

Sunday Indo Sport

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