Tuesday 24 October 2017

John Greene: Capital grants remain vital for all those still playing catch-up

Government funding for sport should now hit the right targets, writes John Greene

‘Most sporting spaces are there for the use of the local community, the parish or for the members of the private club’
‘Most sporting spaces are there for the use of the local community, the parish or for the members of the private club’
John Greene

John Greene

The excellent book Places We Play explores Ireland’s sporting heritage, and seeks to emphasise just how central it has been in the country’s development over the last 300 years. Authors Mike Cronin and Roisin Higgins delve deep into the history of our sporting venues and culture and argue that something which has been such an integral part of the nation’s evolution has been largely ignored.

One early passage will undoubtedly resonate with a lot of people. Across Ireland, they say, “the majority of sporting spaces are not concerned with large-scale crowds. Most sporting spaces are there for the use of the local community, the parish or for the members of the private club.”

They go on: “While books have to balance, the impetus behind these sporting spaces, those at local level, are not driven by the need to cater for mass spectators or to maximise commercial profits. As a result, the local GAA, cricket, tennis or bowling club is concerned with providing a service — a place to play — for those in the locality.

“There may be major matches in the year that draw a crowd, but essentially the facilities are for those that play. Here, the needs of the player — somewhere to change, store equipment, and maybe to socialise — are paramount. In these sporting spaces, the buildings around the ground may be limited to simple utilitarian structures.”

This  just about sums up the facts of life for the majority of Irish sports clubs. Which is why this week will be an extremely stressful one for thousands of volunteers all over the country as Friday’s deadline for applications for the latest round of sports capital grants looms.

There is a lot of responsibility in being the person or persons who will compile and lodge these applications. One mistake, no matter how simple or innocent, could disqualify your club from consideration. That is a weight of expectation to shoulder. Then again, it’s no different from the weight shouldered by those who keep clubs and organisations running, or the weight shouldered in looking after the best interests of young people, keeping them sane and healthy in a world gone mad.

Those clubs who have left it until the last minute to prepare their application will sadly struggle to get it together in time, such is the amount of legwork involved.

There are documents to be discovered, signed and certified by a solicitor, there are more documents to be completed by whichever bank or financial institution is providing the loan for the proposed development, the deeds to the club’s property must be submitted, or, if the land in question is leased, evidence must be provided that there is permission to develop from the land owner and again there is a legal framework for this. There must be evidence that the proposed development has received planning permission, or that a planning application has been lodged. If planning permission is not required, the local authority must confirm this. You need tender documents, you need to be able to show that the proposed development will have a positive impact on the community and you need to be able to demonstrate a clear need for it.

This is a lot of work. Indeed, it may even seem over the top, but sadly the sports clubs of today are paying in this regard for what went before. There were just too many instances of applications being fudged and of money not being spent on what it was intended for. At the end of the day, the €40m which will be awarded to clubs later this year is public money and it must be properly accounted for. For too long, politicians played fast and loose with the public purse and if one good thing has come out of the recession it is a greater sense of collective responsibility about how we spend our money. That’s not to say there isn’t still waste — you only have to look at, say, the big-spending departments of health, education and social welfare to know we still have a road to travel.

The last two rounds of sports capital grants made €70m available for clubs and led to a frenzy of applications, over 4,000. The expectation is that this latest round will have another 2,000 or more applications.

This is revealing because it shows that through all the bad things that have happened to this country and its citizens in the last seven or eight years, there is still a core decency at the heart of Irish life which drives ordinary people to seek to achieve extraordinary things for their locality.

In a general sense, the sports capital programme still has something of a bad name. It was so regularly used in the past by influential TDs as a political slush fund to curry favour in their constituencies that it became something of a running joke.

There is also the widely held view that there has been an over-emphasis on capital projects. After this latest round is complete, over €100m will have been pledged to developments in the lifetime of this government. Money given directly to sporting associations will generally lead to a drip down to grassroots to encourage participation projects. How this money is spent is closely scrutinised by department officials.

Last week, Minister for Sport Michael Ring gave just over €7.4m to the big field sports, Gaelic games, soccer and rugby. This must be used to fund projects aimed at increasing participation. There is an argument that this money gives better value in the long term than that which is funnelled into development, and that we would be better to focus instead on regional capital projects.

This is fair enough, but Ireland remains rooted in a culture of community and there is no harm in this either. In the past, sports clubs within communities competed against each other, and were intent on developing facilities for their own use, but there is a greater acceptance now that this is not the way forward. On that basis, it is reasonable to support communities — especially those, and there are many, still playing catch-up. There are still pockets where levels of participation greatly exceed the facilities available and this needs to be factored into the thought processes of sports funding. Ultimately, it’s about striking a balance, and perhaps this latest round of grants can target areas which have not been able to keep up in the past.

To be fair to Ring, the previous two rounds of grants were heavily scrutinised by journalists and commentators and were largely found to be fair. He stuck rigidly to, firstly, enforcing the rules, and secondly, operating a pro rata system across the 26 counties based on size and population.

Assuming that a high percentage of the €110m which this government has made available is eventually drawn down, then perhaps now is the time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of sport in Ireland and see how best the next €100m can be spent. This is a great country for review groups and reports, but maybe this is one time it actually might make sense.

As noted by Cronin and Higgins, the Irish sporting landscape of venues “is a complex mix of the buildings that speaks of the history of Ireland”.

It is, they add, “a sporting landscape which has been governed and dictated largely, in comparison with other western nations, by clubs, organisations and associations, rather than by the state or municipality.”

That was then, this is now. We are writing the next chapter.


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