Thursday 19 July 2018

Enthusiasm counts for nothing when time is taken away

Not having a dedicated Assistant Secretary for Sport is a backward step

Minster for Transport Paschal Donohoe
Minster for Transport Paschal Donohoe
John Greene

John Greene

Nobody ever really thought it was a good idea to move sport into the Department of Transport. Nobody, that is, who knows anything about sport. Sadly, when it comes to those who make most of the decisions in this country, those people are few and far between.

Sport never belonged with transport. Transport is simply too big, it is vast, and those who work in transport - including the minister Paschal Donohoe - are utterly occupied by it. It is a never-ending sprawl of roads, rail networks, Luas lines, bus routes and unhappy taxi drivers. It is an incessant procession of angry motorists, frustrated cyclists and confused pedestrians, of disgruntled unions and down-at-heel local authorities. It is a runaway train.

In the last two weeks, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has issued seven press releases - on the launch of the new national aviation policy, the first meeting of the Tourism Leadership Group, a €13.7m upgrade for the Phoenix Park tunnel, the road fatality figure for 2015, the bulletin of vehicle and driver statistics, news on Ireland's Regional Airports Programme and the unveiling of 90 new high-tech buses for Dublin. Transport 6, Tourism 1, Sport 0.

Transport's annual budget is around €1.4bn. It is a job which takes up almost all the time of anyone who has any senior role in it. And since he became the minister just over 13 months ago, Donohoe has had little time for anything else. This is the order of things.

Sport and Tourism - now that's a different matter. There is an argument to be made for lumping them together, even if that argument is stronger now because of the massive growth in the sports tourism industry than when the two were first thrown together in 1997. Sport had a stint with Education too, a more likely partner than Transport, but it was still seriously disadvantaged by being under the umbrella with another of the government biggies.

The problem is the refusal to take sport seriously. This may seem harsh given the improvements that have been made in recent years, but the truth is that sport is being held back, restrained by the lack of a national vision and the failure to identify in any meaningful way with the opportunities that sport can afford to the economy and to the wellbeing of the nation.

No matter how simple this argument may appear, it has failed to get traction where it matters most, and this is a source of frustration for sports organisations. The relationship between physical activity and national wellbeing is well established, no dispute there. There is growing data to support the view that sport contributes massively to the economy, directly and indirectly; and, sports tourism - where visitors avail of a country's sporting amenities (like golf and angling) or attend international events - has been identified by many governments as an area with huge potential to boost revenue.

There are many excellent national governing bodies in sport now, organisations which are looking around the world for ways in which to improve, to raise standards at national and international level. And by raising standards, it is not just in their elite athletes, or at their grassroots, it is - crucially - in how they run their sport. This, more than anything, is the best future for Irish sport.

Yet in so many ways we are standing still, maybe even taking a few steps back. The latest blow came from a decision taken within the Department which is arguably the biggest disaster in sport we have seen in some time.

Since 1997, the one thing sport could rely on was having a dedicated person of authority in the Department. It was then, in the Bertie Ahern government, with Jim McDaid as minister, that the decision was taken to have an Assistant Secretary for Sport. The position has been there ever since and it is no coincidence that there have been significant improvements in that time. As sport was kicked around the place, at least it held its Assistant Secretary post, and this was important. In the 18 years there have been two, Con Haugh and Donagh Morgan, both highly regarded, both skilled at working in the best interests of sport.

Assistant Secretaries report to the head of the Department, the Secretary General, who in turn reports to the minister. The Secretary General in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is Tom O'Mahony.

With a couple of retirements imminent - including Morgan's - the decision has been taken to merge two Assistant Secretary posts, sport and tourism, meaning one person will now be responsible for both sectors. This is an extraordinary decision. Anybody who knows anything about how sport is run will see straight away it spells trouble. It is a massive backward step which will unquestionably have to be reversed by someone at some point in the future, by which stage the damage done to sport will be considerable. Even one month of going in the wrong direction could take years to get back on course.

O'Mahony told last week that sport had nothing to fear from this change. He said: "The intention is that the Assistant Secretary will be able to devote the same amount of time and enthusiasm to sport as is currently the case." He said some corporate services currently part of the role will be transferred to help achieve this. But does anyone really think that one person with responsibility for tourism and sport will have time for the latter, given the importance placed on tourism here? Anyway, enthusiasm has nothing to do with it. All the enthusiasm in the world is pointless without the time to follow through.

There was a time when the most important qualities needed to be involved in sport in this country were passion and enthusiasm. Player, supporter or administrator - it didn't matter. Once you were passionate and enthusiastic that was all that mattered.

And in the 1990s, these traits got us to two World Cups, to an heroic defeat by Australia in rugby at Lansdowne Road . . . it got us to all sorts of places. We were, for a time, drunk on passion. Literally. But this is not enough to sustain a proper sports movement, and in the last 15 years our organisations have evolved. Many of them are smart, well-run operations. They understand the importance of passion to fans, but know too that it doesn't pay the bills or improve standards. All the boring stuff - like business plans, strategic plans, development plans - they are what help to pay the bills and improve standards.

But it is not good for business if you have intelligently-run organisations waking up to the new realities of how things are done all over the world if the bosses are asleep at the wheel.

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