Friday 17 November 2017

Climate of austerity sees sport frozen out

John Greene

John Greene

Now that the presidential election is over, RTE has gone into full Budget countdown mode to sustain its output for the next five weeks. Amid all the talk of austerity on the airwaves, however, you won't hear much in the weeks ahead about what will happen to sport in this country over the next few years.

Sport, you see, doesn't matter. After all, it's just not politically correct to talk about cuts to sport spending given the hardships that lie ahead for people. But that is not quite the full picture . . . because sport does matter, maybe not in the corridors of power and influence, but certainly in homes and communities all over the country.

You will hear some cheap shots in the coming weeks. A news or current affairs presenter will wonder why money should be given to some sport or other while hospital beds are being closed. Remember Ivan Yates tried that one a few months back? The amount of money spent on health (€13bn) and education (€8bn) should be plenty to run both services but it's not, purely because of the inefficiencies in the system, not because there's not enough money.

If, and this might be a big 'if', there is a real national recovery plan, then sport must be part of it. There are enough studies around to show the value of participation at grassroots to a state, both in terms of revenue and savings on health expenditure, to show that sport must be part of the solution to Ireland's recovery.

And what of the intangible benefits? The outflows of emotion and positive energy that accompany great sporting moments? Ireland doesn't just need fiscal recovery, it needs to find its mojo again. Last Friday night, Paul O'Connell's Munster and Leo Cullen's Leinster all but filled the Aviva Stadium in another demonstration of the meaning of sport to this country.

Sadly, though, all the available evidence points to troubled times ahead.

In 2008, the Irish Sports Council received just over €57m to fund all the sports and elite athletes under its watch but the following year this was cut by €4m -- the first time its budget was cut, and that after nine successive increases.

And it has been cut twice since in the intervening budgets, down to €46.87m for this year. That represents a fairly drastic 17.5 per cent reduction in the amount of money to fund sporting organisations and athletes in just three years.

But given Friday's announcement of the government's intention to effectively remove over €12.4bn from the Irish economy over the next four years, then clearly things are about to get a whole lot worse.

The speculation is that the sports council's funding will be cut by a further 15 per cent over the next three years although this figure may even rise as high as 20 per cent. This would see its budget drop below €40m -- taking funding for Irish sport back to the levels of nearly a decade go.

By way of comparison, it is interesting to look at the government's full sports spend in 2008 alongside the proposed spend for this year.

In 2008, the total amount provided for sport by the Exchequer was €311m. Admittedly, this figure is somewhat distorted by the fact that it included €93m towards the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road and also €76.2m for the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund (since transferred back to its rightful home in the Department of Agriculture, although it too has been cut dramatically, back to €57.2m this year) but alongside the total of €86.5m provided for sport this year it gives you some idea of the extent to which the financing of sport in Ireland has collapsed.

The sad truth is that you cannot ascribe such a dramatic reduction to the plight of the state's finances alone. Because it is also a question of attitude, or to be more specific political attitude. When the coffers were overflowing it was great for successive ministers and the largely Fianna Fáil governments to throw money around the country at sporting bodies and clubs, but once pressure came on the public finances the tap was turned off.

What this showed was that the government at the time did not have any sports policy to speak of. It had effectively funded projects on an ad hoc basis as clubs and organisations developed them. There had been no coherent national strategy which could, to take just one example, have overseen a regional approach to developing infrastructure so as to ensure that all parts of the country had access to a range of proper facilities.

What is even more disappointing is that despite the change of government this year there is still an apparent lack of direction and policy-making in sport and so it seems extremely likely that its funding will continue to be slashed.

The cuts will bite into all aspects of sport in Ireland -- from elite level to the grassroots, from the provision of new facilities to the upkeep of old facilities and there will be lasting effects. Cuts made now will ripple long into the future -- the deeper the cuts the longer the damage will be felt. A lot of children will fall through the net and miss out on the benefits of taking part in sport. Teams will be sent off to represent Ireland in their chosen sport on the international stage in the years ahead with their chances greatly reduced.

It seems national expectation will now have to be adjusted downwards, to match the national mood. That should make some people happy.

Sunday Indo Sport

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