Monday 22 May 2017

Sport may be winner in cabinet reshuffle

If we assume that Brian Cowen's conversion to political radicalism has some substance, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism is not long for this world.

According to the political rumour mill its responsibilities will be scattered across other departments once Cowen announces his cabinet reshuffle and government reorganisation. Martin Cullen (pictured), the current minister, will be parked on the backbenches. While few political pundits would place substantial bets on Cowen actually delivering radical change, if it happens it will mark a desultory reversal in fortunes for the sports establishment.

Money started to flow into sport from the moment that Jim McDaid became the first minister for sport to sit at the cabinet table (previous holders of the office had been junior ministers attached to other departments). Now, more than a decade later, that funding has started to recede and the cabinet seat is about to be lost. It would be easy to see cause and effect and to fear for sports funding once its responsibilities are subsumed in another department, but to focus on its position in the political hierarchy is to miss the point.

Sports funding did not happen because sport had a cabinet minister, it happened because there was plenty of cash to spare as the economy boomed and sport offered an easy, and barely scrutinised, way for the dominant political party to lavish cash on local projects.

For McDaid and John O'Donoghue, his immediate successor, the sports capital programme offered a pool of money to be distributed disproportionately in their own constituencies. Good facilities were built and worthy clubs benefited, but the money was spent without reference to what the country or the individual county needed and without any reference to the delivery of an actual sports policy. The sports capital programme became little more than a political slush fund: having a minister, rather than a junior minister, just affected the flow.

If scattering cash was the first leg of the sports 'policy', the creation of the Irish Sports Council was the second. Whatever you think of its effectiveness and governance, the ISC has provided some focus and structure for the development of sport across the country. It should not need a cabinet minister to fight its corner or an army of civil servants at its back. It should be able to operate seamlessly under any department (that, after all, is the point of establishing a quango) and its only political concern should be the size of its budget.

There is no reason to believe it will fare worse if its case is fought by a junior minister rather than by a full cabinet minister who carries no clout (because in the political hierarchy, the minister for sport is a holding post for those whose shelf life has almost expired).

Cowen's reorganisation, if it happens, should be at worst neutral for sport and could actually deliver benefits. The horse industry can be sent back to its natural home in the Department of Agriculture -- its funding is an industry subsidy rather than a sporting one -- and the ISC can be handed over to the Department of Health.

Without its own department and its own dedicated minister the ISC will have to raise its game, justifying its budget by delivering measurable improvements in participation and in elite performance. Its future funding will be determined by the state of the public finances and by its own performance, not by the perceived political pull of a cabinet minister.

Removing the comfort blanket of its own department and own minister will also force greater responsibility onto the new board of the ISC. Once it stands alone in a new department the board will have to provide a level of oversight and scrutiny that has not always been apparent. The transition may be painful, but that does not mean it will be harmful. Sport will have to fight hard for its funding and it will have to convince the department of finance that it is delivering value for the public money it receives.

Freed of direct political interference and the distortion of the subsidies to horse racing, that case should be easier to make. It might also get things done a bit more quickly.

Last week saw the publication of the ISC's strategy for 2009-2011, which was handed to the department at the end of 2008: it took 14 months to publish a document that is meant to lay down a three-year strategy.

If that is what a dedicated department delivers, then sport will not suffer from Cowen's radicalism.

Sunday Independent

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