Thursday 5 December 2019

Goals set, now let's follow through

AT this time of year it is our habit to look to the sporting year ahead. Our attention inevitably falls on the sports themselves, on the teams and competitors we follow.

This year we look forward to the usual mix of domestic and international competition, with all the ups and downs they bring. But away from the action, what our policy-makers and administrators – at all levels – are up to is in many ways just as important.

It's an area where we haven't always covered ourselves in glory. There are still problems in the administration of Irish sport, old values and systems which are hopelessly inadequate and out of step with modern demands, be it amateur or professional, but progress has definitely been made.

Last year, Leo Varadkar as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport took the unusual step of outlining what his priorities were for 2012. There were 15 in all, two of which related to sport. Last month, in the days before Christmas, Varadkar went through each of the targets he had set and reported on how he had fared. Nine had been achieved, including the two for sport – a round of grants in the sports capital programme for the first time in four years and starting work on the new Sports HQ at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

This kind of transparency from government is as welcome as it is rare.

Varadkar has set out his top priorities again and, in a list of 20, four relate directly to sport. It is a sign of the times, though, that number one on the list is implementing the cut in his budget of 20 per cent, which equates to €387m. The Department's budget for the year is €1.7bn, of which just €45m goes directly to sport.

There will be no huge surprises either in how that money is spent. The majority of it – €43.1m – goes to the Irish Sports Council, to be distributed among the country's leading athletes, all the affiliated national governing bodies and the local sports partnerships.

The minister appears adamant that smaller NGBs, which do not have access to other revenue streams, should not be cut. He has also said that he does not want any cuts passed on to boxing or the Irish Paralympic movement because of their successes in 2012, so there are strings attached.

Another chunk of at least €1.5m will go to the Sports Campus. This is the one project in Irish sport which has yet to capture the public imagination but its potential is significant. Certainly, it is one Varadkar latched onto early in his term of office despite the fact that at the time he was struggling to get to grips with the sporting arm of his new brief. Yes, the campus is in his constituency, but he still identified the development of this facility as a priority from the word go and making further progress in 2013 makes his wishlist.

The campus is already home to the Irish Institute of Sport and the FAI. The new Irish Sport HQ, which will house 18 NGBs initially, will be ready by the end of March and there is a plan to install a cross-country route before the summer. Other work, such as site clearance, demolitions and internal road construction should be completed by April, and work on some of the planned playing pitches should begin then.

The new centre of excellence for Horse Sport Ireland and modern pentathlon is also expected to be ready in the spring. The agreed plan with Horse Sport Ireland involves the development of a high-performance equestrian training arena within the walled garden area of Abbotstown House, and the renovation of an adjacent farm outhouse for fencing and pistol shooting.

The cost of upgrading the existing facilities to the required standard is estimated at €600,000 and a plan to maintain the facility and to recoup at least 50 per cent of the construction cost within 10 years is being finalised.

Over 12 months ago a decision was taken as part of the rationalising of state agencies to merge the sports council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority – which runs the campus, the aquatic centre and Morton Stadium in Santry – and that will move a big step closer to reality in the coming months.

Of course, it makes sense to have one State body looking after sport in Ireland but the transition will certainly not be painless. The outline Bill for the setting up of Sport Ireland, which will also be based at the Campus, is being finalised and will be submitted to the Cabinet shortly for approval.

Next on the wishlist is advancing the case for making sport an exam subject, bringing it on a par with the teaching of music and art, so that physical education is taught both as a skill and an academic discipline. It's thought Varadkar has the support of Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn on this one and draft proposals on how it can be achieved are expected in the first half of the year.

Finally, a committee chaired by junior minister Michael Ring looking into the feasibility of a museum of Irish sport is expected to report back and a decision may be taken before the year is out.

We still have a road to travel to understand how to get the most out of sport, but at least now we are moving forward.

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