Monday 23 October 2017

John Greene: Neglect hasn't diminished volunteer spirit

Sporting groups have picked up the slack for State failure for far too long

Michael Ring
Michael Ring
John Greene

John Greene

Like so many Irish scandals before it, the origins of the Central Remedial Clinic scandal can be traced back to the days when this country decided to abdicate its responsibilities across a whole range of areas -- principally in health and education.

Cast to one side the culture of greed evident again last week and ask how did we get here in the first place? How have we ended up in a society where the volunteer sector is central to so many essential services? Why is this country so dependent on charity and goodwill in order to provide basic levels of care? Ireland has a history of volunteering and this has been exploited.

Education was ceded to the religious, health to the religious and anyone else who wanted it, and sport to the GAA and other bodies. And with that came all the problems that followed and which one by one have been uncovered. The CRC scandal is a reminder of this. It is a legacy of institutional failure.

Sport has suffered greatly in this regard. It is hard to know why it took the State so long to face up to the fact that it had any meaningful role to play in the provision of physical activity to citizens, and even when it did it was only superficially. For years the evidence has been there linking physical activity with health and yet nothing of any substance happened. We know we will spend less on health if we get people active. We know the benefits of being active are enormous, to the individual and to society. There is no mystery here.

Yet it was left to volunteers, thousands upon thousands of volunteers, to pick up the slack and give up their time to help and encourage young people (and not-so-young people) to be active. And they continue to give up their time, although at least now we know that there is finally going to be some kind of masterplan for sport which will in time -- hopefully -- bring greater direction and unity to government policy. For now, our volunteer culture is needed more than ever.

On Friday, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport began accepting applications for the latest sports capital programme. There is €40m being made available to clubs to develop sporting facilities across the country. Between now and the deadline on February 28 there will be a flood of applications, far in excess of what can be catered for.

The last time money was made available for sports projects, in 2012, there were 2,170 applications from clubs to a total value of €229m when there was just €30m available. It was the highest number of applications received in the history of the sports capital programme and ultimately most were left disappointed when they missed out. In the end, 615 projects were awarded funding.

With more money available this time, and given that clubs and organisations which do not own their own land or do not even have long-term leases can apply again, the expectation is that the number of applications will be even greater.

"Under the programme pitches will be drained, floodlights will be installed, sports halls will be improved and dressing rooms will be built," says minister Michael Ring. "Thanks to these grants, people will have more opportunities than ever to get active and stay active in a wide range of sports. It will also have a positive impact on job creation in construction."

As one door opened on Friday at noon, another closed five hours later. IPB Insurance put aside €1m and invited community and voluntary groups to make a submission for a share of this money. In stark contrast to what happened at the CRC, this is an extraordinary venture for a company to undertake. IPB says it sees this as a social dividend, reaching right down into the heart of

communities where there are plenty of willing volunteers but very little money. The idea is to help groups get projects off the ground -- a small bit of money can make a big difference. Grants of up to €10,000 will be made which IPB hopes will get worthy projects started.

IPB, which late last year also pledged €50,000 to help the FAI expand its groundbreaking late night league programme, opted not to shout from the rooftops about this fund -- choosing instead to communicate directly with groups via local authorities and other outlets -- and yet when Friday's 5.0pm deadline expired, an incredible 1,987 submissions had been lodged by community groups. This shows us two things: firstly, that the spirit of community and volunteerism is still extremely strong in Ireland, even in the face of all that has happened in the last five years; and, secondly, that there is a huge desperation out there as so many people who are striving to keep themselves and their families afloat are still stressing about making the area they live in a better place for everybody.

This selflessness from what Eoghan Harris has called the coping classes is in stark contrast to the sense of entitlement we were once again exposed to last week, that familiar air of superiority which lies behind so many of our financial scandals. This, we have to hope, is the real Ireland.

Irish Independent

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