Ireland's efforts to develop a national sports campus have never taken hold in the public imagination.
There's no doubt that the concept was initially stained by its association with the ill-fated Bertie Bowl project but of course its failure to ignite a spark in the sporting imagination lay too in a lack of faith in the Irish system's ability to get such a project off the ground. And how well placed those doubts were.
However, a number of developments -- particularly over the last few months -- have given rise to a new sense of optimism that the campus may, one day, become a reality. It is extraordinary to think that a decade of wilful spending on sport came and went without progressing the initial idea of a fully integrated campus, a sort of one-stop shop for sport in Ireland. But there you have it, it did, and -- to borrow the phrase -- we are where we are.
Which is where, exactly?
Well, the campus is a 520-acre site in Blanchardstown which currently consists of the headquarters of the FAI, the Irish Institute of Sport -- a support unit to high performance athletes and coaches -- and the National Aquatic Centre. The campus is run by the National Sports Campus Development Authority, which has also taken Morton Stadium in Santry under its wing.
The Authority has operated under the radar since it was set up in January 2007. Under its previous guise, Campus Stadium Ireland Development, it became embroiled in a bitter High Court dispute with Dublin WaterWorld Ltd, the company to which it had first given the aquatic centre lease in April 2003. The agreement between the two ended two years later. The parties then became involved in a court case centred largrely around a row over VAT payments of just over €10m.
The newly constituted authority has shown itself to be quite capable, even if it did sustain collateral damage in the crossfire from that case, most recently during a Public Accounts Committee hearing on the matter.
However, all the evidence points to the fact that the authority has enjoyed a good 2011 in terms of plans to press ahead with the campus development.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar has put this on his list of priorities and, according to sources, this is not just political-speak as he intends to make funds available to the project over the lifetime of this government, beginning with in the region of €4m in this week's Budget.
Full planning permission is in place for Phase 1 of the project. This plan includes the already-completed aquatic centre and Institute of Sport, as well as Gaelic games, soccer, rugby and hockey pitches, a state-of-the-art indoor arena, the refurbishment of the historic Abbotstown House into offices and an Irish sport headquarters which will house, at last count, 19 governing bodies.
It is widely acknowledged that the aquatic centre is a success story. Swim Ireland's high performance unit, which includes promising swimmers like Melanie Nocher (pictured), is based there. It is recognised as a world-class facility which has been copied by other nations and its success in attracting water polo and synchronised swimming teams to prepare for the London Olympics and Paralympics -- against a backdrop of failure by Ireland to entice teams from all the other sports here ahead of the games -- shows the centre is a player on the international stage.
Following successive years of growth in numbers -- it currently has over 2,000 learner swimmers in the academy and over 5,000 gym members -- it has become largely self-sufficient, although a state subsidy is still required so that Swim Ireland and community groups can be facilitated.
Some key decisions taken by the minister should now facilitate further development at the campus.
Perhaps the most important of these has been transferring the 520 acres into the ownership of the authority. If, as expected, €4 million is made available in Tuesday's Budget then that is expected to finance the required infrastructure so that the GAA, IRFU, FAI and IHA can develop their pitches.
This will mark the biggest step forward since the completion of the aquatic centre. It is understood the GAA is already at an advanced stage in its preparations to install pitches.
Once roadways, lighting etc are in place, the associations will pay for the development of their own areas which again should speed up the process. It is also hoped that the NGBs who have committed to relocating their headquarters will be on-site by the summer of 2013.
By far the most ambitious element of the campus, however, is the indoor arena which, at current construction prices, it is estimated would cost €40m. The 14,000 square metre arena would house an indoor athletics track, a sports centre (badminton, basketball, volleyball courts) and a gymnastics centre and would accommodate about 2,000 spectators.
Not surprisingly, there is no state funding available for this construction but given its scale it does seem that perhaps further consideration could have been given before it was decided to allocate €30m to the newly reopened sports capital programme. However, it is understood that the authority and the government intend to explore the possibility of using philanthropy to build the arena, and perhaps even the sale of some excess land on the campus.
Given the way things are this may all appear fanciful, and perhaps it is. But at a time when sport is doing so much to bring hope and fulfilment into everyday life, then pressing ahead with this grand plan, even on an incremental basis, makes perfect sense. St Mel's Cathedral in Longford, which was destroyed by fire two years ago, was built around the time of the Famine and stood for over 150 years as a monument to the Irish spirit. Surely that spirit is as strong now as it ever was.
Sunday Indo Sport