Friday 19 January 2018

John Greene: Funding for sport still just scraps from the table

John Greene wonders how bad it would be if we didn't have such a proactive minister

Even for a man of boundless energy, Michael Ring must be getting weary of having to always argue for scraps from the table
Even for a man of boundless energy, Michael Ring must be getting weary of having to always argue for scraps from the table
John Greene

John Greene

The cuts are over and we are moving in the right direction. So said Minister for Sport Michael Ring last week as the Irish Sports Council announced a funding plan of €19.6m for 59 sporting bodies for the year.

In normal circumstances, that would have been a nice soundbite from the minister. But these aren't normal circumstances. Ring has played no small role in fighting for sports funding during his term in office. To be fair, he has been a good advocate for sport, taking the fight all the way to the Cabinet when he has to. But even for a man of boundless energy, he must be getting weary of having to always argue for scraps from the table, making the same points over and over to people who just don't seem to understand. It is not an easy war when you are up against the weight of the big-spending departments like Social Welfare, Health and Education.

From the start, Ring has been strongly in favour of growing participation levels and over the last four years, he has not deviated from that message, to the point of taking a personal interest in how sports organisations are spending their money. When he finds additional resources, he targets areas he feels are in need of attention. Hence, for example, the additional €975,000 given to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association in December to improve facilities and purchase equipment. There have been other instances of this over the last few years.

It's worth putting some context on last week's funding announcement. Yes, €19,6m is a lot of money, but what is it really in the overall scheme of things? It's less than two per cent of the health budget, a stroke of a pen to the HSE. Yet, that €19.6m is made to work extremely hard by the sports organisations, conscious as they are that there is not much to go around. Levels of waste are kept to a minimum in most cases. There will always be instances where this is not so - and they must be tracked and rooted out - but they are becoming less and less under the watchful eye of the Irish Sports Council and the Department. The Sports Council, too, has become a tighter-run organisation itself.

So while there was a general air of positivity at last week's event, nobody is fooled either. Many of the national governing bodies are now professionally-run organisations, with qualified chief executives and financial officers, proper governance structures and levels of accountability, innovative schemes to boost participation at grassroots level and the drive and ambition to enhance high-performance programmes at the other end of the spectrum to get our athletes up to international standards. One excellent programme in the news lately has been Swim Ireland's Swim A Mile, which encourages people of all ages and ability to train over eight or 12 weeks to swim the distance. This is just one example of several excellent initiatives which have been designed to get people active in a variety of different ways. Another, for instance, is the couch to 5k plan.

There are a lot of very capable people involved in Irish sport who know what's required to keep their organisation viable and progressive on one hand and to grow their sport on the other. Away from the bright lights, look at the successes of Swim Ireland, Badminton Ireland, the Irish Hockey Association, Triathlon Ireland, Cycling Ireland, the IABA, to name but a few - all showing what they can achieve on modest resources.

They know, just as we know, just as the minister for all his hard work knows, the money given to sport is still just scraps from the table. For the most part, it's money well spent - and how many government departments can you say that about?

When the minister found an extra €1m before Christmas for the Irish Sports Council, it was, apparently quite literally, a life saver. According to sources, the money led to a collective sigh of relief in the council. How can that be right? How can we think we are serious about sport and promoting physical activity when we leave our main instrument of implementing policy hanging on like that?

Less well publicised at the time, another sum was also found, €2.265m from the Dormant Account Fund, which the sports council can access this year, with €1.795m earmarked for current expenditure and €0.47m for capital projects.

You have to wonder if you had a minister less active in looking under rocks for money for sport, what would happen then? Why not give a proper allocation, which has been assessed in terms of value for money and what it can achieve, and pledge it to sport? Better still, why not show some real foresight and sit down with the Department, the Sports Council and the big three sports organisations (the GAA, IRFU and FAI, whose funding is outside the €19.6m allocated last week) and work out a progressive scheme of multi-annual funding which - to borrow that marvellous corporate-speak term - will make us among the best in class internationally. We don't have to trail behind other countries, banking on a few exceptional individuals to rise above the rest and blaze a trail in green.

Of course, there has been significant capital investment in the last three years and that is welcome, but as we saw with the last government, when times are hard that is one of the first taps turned off, which means the current coalition have been playing catch-up. That another scheme is imminent is welcome, too, but it should not be confused with the day-to-day spending which really drives sport.

In the meantime, it was encouraging last week to hear sports council officials talk about the need to take more steps towards improving both the standards and number of trained coaches. This has long been a criticism of the Irish system, as evidenced by the fact that in the recent past our most successful athletes have taken control of their own careers by surrounding themselves with their own coaching team. Even our most successful sport, boxing, has had its controversy in this area. This is our next big step forward.

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