Monday 23 April 2018

Failure not an option when the cuts begin

John Greene

John Greene

I T is unlikely George Orwell had politicians in mind when he said the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. And yet we had sports minister Mary Hanafin claiming last Wednesday afternoon that tourism, culture and sport would "contribute" to Ireland's economic recovery.

By contribute, of course, the minister meant that tourism, culture and sport would be cut -- by €13m in 2011, along with a further €4m in what is helpfully described as non-pay administrative savings. The 'contribution' from sport next year is €3m, not including those administrative savings. Between 2012 and 2014, the department will be asked to contribute a further €50m but there is no indication yet as to how this will be spread across the three portfolios.

(It is bewildering that the four-year plan to rescue Ireland identifies savings in tourism through 'a better focusing and prioritisation of spending'. Did some official just stumble on a novel concept of prudence with public money? In every other walk of life this is a starting point for expenditure, not a philosophy of last resort.)

Taking the €3m cut in direct spending on sport next year, it is likely that €2.5m will be taken from the Irish Sports Council, and €500,000 from the National Sports Campus. The sports council's budget this year was just short of €50m and before the publication of the spending cuts last Wednesday it would have been fearful that it faced much more draconian action -- figures of a 15 or 20 per cent cut had been floated in some quarters.

So, in a sense, sport got off lightly and they may not say so publicly, but those charged with distributing money down through the ranks of Irish sport will have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Nor, as one commentator noted last week, should sport apologise for wanting to preserve its funding -- or as much of it as is possible at any rate.

Which is why it is absolutely vital that past mistakes are not repeated. Money earmarked for sport has not always been wisely spent. In common with most other areas in Irish public life, there is a legacy of extraordinary waste -- the bill incurred in the High Court last March by the ISC and Athletics Ireland, legal fees incurred in the multitude of petty disputes which have blighted Irish sport and lavish spending on overseas trips are just some examples.

The recent history of Irish sports funding, in fact, is littered with stories of waste and cronyism of the worst kind. John O'Mahony pointed to this last week when he said that "less Government money will be spent on sport as the Department has to foot the bill for a variety of legal costs, including the disastrous VAT court case that involved the National Aquatic Centre". He claimed this case alone could cost the taxpayer up to €7.5m.

Long before events of the last two months crystallised into the horrors of the last few weeks, it was known that the new board at the sports council, for example, had resolved to go through next year's grants with a fine-tooth comb to ensure its money was being put to good use. That mission has taken on added currency now. How the cuts are applied by the sports council's board will be closely monitored.

One thing is for certain -- some difficult decisions still have to be made, despite the light-touch approach of the Government on this occasion. There is still at least €2.5m -- and possibly more -- to be found in 2011 and this money will come directly out of the funding which drips down to the national governing bodies.

If you are a board member, do you sanction a cut, say, in swimming? Swim Ireland's core grant was almost €1m this year, with another €400,000 invested in high performance. This is the sport which has produced one of the brightest young stars this country has known for some time in Gráinne Murphy. And Murphy (pictured) has underlined her growing international reputation with two bronze medals this weekend at the European Short Course Championships.

Or what about boxing, where relations between the sports council and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association remain seriously strained? This year, the IABA received €200,000 in core funding, and €700,000 and once again its return on that investment was phenomenal. Boxing remains far and away Ireland's most successful sport on the international stage, and the IABA believes it has a strong case for an increase in core funding.

What about Triathlon Ireland? A new CEO was installed last February and it is seen to be doing a good job in overseeing Ireland's fastest growing sport. It received a total of €240,000 in 2010. Or what about funding for motorcycling in light of the fatalities in the sport this year?

Ultimately, there are 60 or so sports in the mix. Does the board apply the cuts in an even-handed manner across all 60? Or does it take a sport-by-sport approach, examine each national governing body's plan for 2011 and make a judgement on each one?

Irish sport should now be very much in Olympics mode so decisions with regard to funding carry greater consequences. Board members have an onerous task.

In the meantime, Gráinne Murphy's exploits in Eindhoven will give the minister what is likely to be her final stint at the arrivals hall in Dublin Airport. Welcome home indeed.

Sunday Independent

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