Monday 10 December 2018

John Greene: Focus on funding elite has left too many behind

Education Minister Richard Bruton.
Education Minister Richard Bruton.

John Greene

It's time to press pause on the sports capital programme. Not because the grants are a bad idea, but because now seems like the right time to take stock of what exactly has been achieved.

Over the last 20 years, more than €900m has been given out - mostly, but not exclusively, to sports clubs - to improve sporting facilities around the country. It is undeniable that the sports capital programme, despite its many flaws, has been an instrument of good but that doesn't tell the whole story.

The furore surrounding the €150,000 to be given to Wesley College, a private school in Dublin, to resurface a hockey pitch once again raised the question of political interference. The school had initially failed in its application but this was overturned on appeal.

It has been clearly shown that in the past the money in the sports capital programme tended to follow the ministers, so those areas with strong representation at the Cabinet table appeared to do better than the rest. And if you had a sports minister in your constituency, well then that was like winning the lottery, so to speak.

When the grants system began, Ireland's network of sporting facilities was grossly underdeveloped and the injection of large sums of money into every county helped rectify that to a large extent. The problems we face now, however, are not quite the same as 20 years ago, because some areas have been left behind. Speaking on Off The Ball on Newstalk last week, historian Paul Rouse highlighted an area in Dublin's south inner city which is home to around 50,000 people and which has no playing field.

There are pockets all over the country - urban and rural - which have been largely ignored. Many of these are socially disadvantaged areas which have been so badly failed by the system, and successive governments, that generations have been lost to the simple joy of play. There are no facilities for PE in their schools, and there is nowhere for them to enjoy sport after school or at weekends.

On Sean O'Rourke's radio programme last week, two principals from secondary schools in Ballyfermot and Tallaght spoke frankly about their frustration at being turned down for a sports grant to provide basic facilities for children to be physically active.

Richard Bruton is Minister for Education, and on March 9 last he tweeted: 'Great news that @howthyachtclub and @suttonltc have been successful in their sports capital grant appeals'.

Howth Yacht Club was turned down in its application to fund changing room refurbishments, but its appeal was successful to the tune of €74,200. Sutton Lawn Tennis Club was also refused a grant for floodlight replacements but was awarded €134,261 on appeal.

It is nice that the Minister for Education is thrilled at this happy turn of events for two clubs in his constituency, but it would be nicer still to think that the provision of proper facilities in all primary and secondary schools for children to exercise would be more to the forefront of his thinking. It is a remarkable achievement for a politician as experienced as Bruton that despite being the minister in charge, it is Leo Varadkar who has been credited with introducing PE to the Leaving Cert syllabus.

On the same day, Fine Gael TD for Dublin Fingal Alan Farrell tweeted: 'Delighted to see two local sporting clubs have their appeals for Sports Capitals Grants approved this evening. Another €253k awarded to Dublin Fingal. @MalahideGolfC @BalbrigganGC @fingalindo @DublinGazette'.

Malahide Golf Club was awarded €150,000 to improve its practice facilities, and Balbriggan Golf Club was awarded €103,430 towards the cost of new machinery. Farrell even poked his local newspapers in his tweet to make sure his delight was properly recorded.

Over in Dublin Mid-West, Fine Gael's Frances Fitzgerald was also on Twitter on March 9: 'Delighted that @peamountutd have been successful in their appeal for €150,000 for an all weather facility under Sports Capital Programme. Congrats to all who worked on this appeal, pleased to support!'

What did the former Tánaiste mean by saying she was 'pleased to support'?

On the same day, Shane Ross tweeted about Wesley College and the controversy around the sports capital grants became one about a well-heeled private school in south county Dublin. A lot of the coverage just skimmed the surface, without getting a level of understanding of where the problem really lies - in how a system which favours the better off is creating further division, as opposed to levelling the playing field.

And in all the noise, an important point was lost: maybe, just maybe, the sports capital programme as currently constituted has run its course. In our obsession with providing state-of-the-art facilities we lost our way and forgot that our first responsibility is to provide spaces for all people to play.

As the sports capital programme evolved over the years, the onerous application process became more and more refined. However, it also came to favour those sporting organisations with the strength in depth and the expertise to satisfy all its requirements. So, the more money a club could raise, the more it could potentially receive. This gave a significant advantage to larger sporting organisations like the GAA, IRFU and FAI, and to any clubs (in any sport) operating in an economically advantaged area.

The time has now come to change direction. We cannot just dismiss the scheme. There is no doubt it has been abused through the years. There is no doubt either that it has helped to provide badly needed, basic sporting facilities which may never have otherwise been built. For now, however, the focus has to be on providing access for all to some kind of sporting space. This means every school needs to be assessed, and also every community, and our national target must be simple: We will not have any children deprived of access to a place to play sport.

The sports capital programme should be suspended; the money should be ring-fenced until such time as it is restarted, and a nationwide appraisal should be undertaken. If the will is there, this could be accomplished quite quickly . . . and then it should be onwards and upwards for the Irish sporting landscape.

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