Wednesday 24 January 2018

Greyhounds: Heard the one about the sports minister who took us for a ride?

T hese days everyone seems worried about wasting time. You'll regularly see newspaper articles advising people on how to juggle their busy work schedule with their busy life schedule, their 'me' time with their family time, their stress with their relaxation. There's apparently more juggling going on in the average Irish life than there is in Duffy's Circus.

Well, it's time this column got in on the act with a tip as to how precious time can be saved in the next few years. Don't listen to a thing Martin Cullen says about sport in this country. He might be the minister responsible but his prognostications on the subject are about as much use as tits on a bull. You'd be better off listening to the man in the shopping centre who thinks the CIA are contacting him through his fillings.

On his return from the Olympics, Cullen was full of big talk. He was going to prioritise this, build that and maximise our chances for a satisfactory return from the London games. Like fools, we decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He sounded like he was taking a genuine interest in making Irish sport better, he even sounded reasonably sincere. But I did point out that if he was serious about helping our Olympians he should remedy the anomaly in sports funding which is unique to this country.

The money shovelled into the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund by the Government dwarfs that given to other sports. Next year, the Sports Council, which is responsible for funding 63 sporting bodies and 33 local sports partnerships as well as distributing the grants to our elite athletes, will receive €53m. The Horse Racing Fund will get €69.7m. Things were bad enough this year, when the Fund accounted for 25 per cent of all sports funding. In 2009 the figure will be 34 per cent. This may be one of the most inequitable pieces of Government funding in the history of the state.

The Economic and Social Research Institute is on record as describing Government support for horse racing as "lavish in extent and weak in justification". This hasn't changed. For all HRI's guff about needing the cash for development and investment, the majority of money from the fund has always gone towards paying out prize money.

You thus have a situation where the less well off, who are the biggest buyers of the National Lottery tickets which fund sport, are subsidising the hobby of the richest people in our society, which is what people who can afford to own racehorses are. Perhaps it gives people on council estates a warm glow to know that they're financially supporting the likes of Michael O'Leary and JP McManus. Perhaps.

Sport in this country will always be underfunded when one small interest group hoovers up so much of the available money. Dress it up anyway you like and it still stinks to high heaven. The problem is that, in the world of Fianna Fáil, the kind of people who own racehorses matter. The fact that they have money has traditionally been seen as proof that they deserve special consideration.

I'm not for one instant suggesting that Martin Cullen is corrupt. It's just that he, like his predecessors, is never more flattered than when he's being patted on the back by a millionaire. The Minister hands over the money and in return he is granted the privilege of being allowed to indulge in conspicuous finishing line celebrations when a horse wins a big race in Cheltenham.

What turns this into a national scandal is that, as has to be the case, horse racing's gain is everyone else's loss. Take, for example, the Gaelic Players' Association who are told that the €3.5m they were promised from Sports Council funding is in danger of being axed. Apparently, the parlous financial situation means that cutbacks must be made and Minister Cullen isn't afraid of getting tough with inter-county footballers and hurlers.

Now I'm not a great fan of the deal the GPA cut with the Government -- I still feel there's a case to be made for the GAA itself paying its players if payment has to be made. But that's neither here nor there in this case. What is relevant is that here is a minister who's just signed off on a €60m bonanza for horse racing, doing the poor mouth when it comes to giving GAA players roughly one twentieth of that amount. The unfairness is obvious.

And so is the fact that, in the Fianna Fáil universe, footballers and hurlers don't matter in the same way that horse racing people do. They tend to be teachers and guards and bank officials and carpenters, the kind of ordinary workers with no privileged access to the people in power. The kind of people, in other words, who our political classes thinks they can spurn with impunity.

If Martin Cullen has a decent bone in his body, he should forthwith guarantee that the money will be there next year, and for the duration of this Government, for the GPA. The juxtaposition of the €60m and the €3.5m is the most obvious illustration of where this Government's priorities lie in regard to sport. HRI made great play of the money local race meetings pump into the economy. Well, it's nothing like the boost GAA matches give to cities and towns all over the country.

Martin Cullen had a choice. The Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund had actually run its course when he arrived in office. He could have refused to renew it or he could have substantially scaled it down. Instead, he signed the Government up for another round of feeding this bloated monster which now swallows up one third of all sports funding. What's particularly sickening about this is that Cullen's post-Olympic rhetoric now looks like the height of hypocrisy.

It was a waste of money paying for him to travel to Beijing in his pyjamas.

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