Tuesday 21 November 2017

John O'Brien: We need a measure of clear thinking

Junior minister Alex White
Junior minister Alex White

John O'Brien

That last week's report from the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications on the proposed ban on alcohol sponsorship fell on the side of the sporting organisations opposed to it wasn't surprising. The committee was headed by John O'Mahony and contained two more sporting stalwarts in Senators Eamonn Coghlan and Paschal Mooney. A sympathetic ear was always a likely outcome.

That's not to say the committee was in any way partisan or unprofessional in its conduct. On the contrary, in inviting both sides of the argument to give submissions, weighing them up and then offering creative suggestions as to how the sporting bodies could contribute more to alcohol awareness issues, the committee showed a thoroughness that its counterparts in health would have done well to follow.

The initial signs are, though, far from promising. When Alex White, the junior minister for health, submits his proposals to curb alcohol misuse for cabinet approval later this year, the ban on sponsorship of sport – as opposed to arts, culture or heritage for some mystifying reason – is likely to remain at the forefront. "We should break the link between alcohol and sport," White reiterated last week. The minister, evidently, isn't for turning.

In one sense, this is fair enough. In an ideal world, a proposal to sever the link between alcohol and sport would strike most rational people as a noble aspiration. And, no question, some of the arguments for retention put forward by the drinks lobby made for distinctly uncomfortable reading. But the issue isn't as black and white as the medical lobbyists would have us believe. It is much more nuanced than that.

White and some of his Labour colleagues don't seem to appreciate those nuances. Nor have they grasped the fact that by removing the estimated €35m that alcohol sponsorship is worth annually, they might be doing more harm than good. Because when sporting organisations are strapped for cash, rest assured it is the community-based projects that are first to go, the kind of initiatives that do so much to ease the burden on our creaking health system.

And the fears of the sporting bodies are well founded. When a marquee event like the Irish Open can't attract a title sponsor, how glib do health officials sound when they talk about replacement revenue streams? "They say funding is easily replaceable," says Sarah O'Connor of the Federation of Irish Sport. "Not to anybody in sport it isn't. Talk to people in Gymnastics Ireland or in Swim Ireland about how easy it is to attract sponsorship. It's next to impossible."

White and other government officials in favour of the ban ought to ask themselves why alcohol sponsorship is so precious to sport in the first place. The answer, in part, is to do with a 25 per cent fall in government investment over the past five years. In its submission, the FAI pointed to a 35 per cent reduction in its core government grant since 2008. The Irish Sports Council won't expect to have much change out of €40m to play around with in 2014.

The thing about this downward spiral is it makes little sense, economic or otherwise. Reports show that for every €100 invested in sport, the exchequer will see a return of €149. Logically, we should be investing more not less. O'Connor points to research in the UK that suggests 11 per cent of its health budget is due to physical inactivity. Here we spend €14bn on health and just over €40m on sport. Where is the joined-up thinking?

While the process was unfolding, O'Connor says the FIS sought twice to have a meeting with Department of Health officials but had no luck either time. This is genuinely shocking. It's fair enough that the medical lobbies – with all their alarmist tendencies – get their voices heard loud and clear, hardly fair that sport should be deemed so inconsequential that there is a chronic lack of engagement with sports officials on an issue that could have devastating consequences.

A brave politician would join the dots, of course, and recognise the value of sport in helping solve problems that manifest themselves elsewhere. They would see the excellent work done by the GAA, for example, not just in relation to alcohol abuse, but in raising suicide awareness and helping to alleviate the blight of rural isolation. They would acknowledge sport's capacity to throw up excellent role models and wonder what more they could do to help, rather than devising short-sighted legislation that might ultimately put such worthy initiatives at risk.

We probably shouldn't be too hard on the minister here. We live in a country, after all, where sport is criminally under-appreciated and half the life of the average sports administrator is spent being thankful for a share of the pot that is dwindling relentlessly downwards. That is the dysfunctional system we live under. White, like the rest of us, is merely a slave to it.

Red Hands raising bar

Browsing the 23-page document that is "Raising the Red Hand Higher", the Tyrone County Board's new five-year plan, is both an exhilarating and intimidating experience. Exhilarating because it reveals a breadth of ambition and professionalism that is wonderful to behold. Intimidating because you quickly realise there are barely a handful of counties in the land that could live with it.

What truly stands out is the relative modesty of their targets. There is no talk, for instance, of winning All-Irelands, just stated intent after intent of the plans they can implement to push them closer and how each sector can come together and work towards the same common goal.

It is 10 years now since Mickey Harte drove Tyrone to the county's first All-Ireland and, unlike several Ulster counties, they didn't retreat and disappear from view. They returned and won another. And another. Harte and the players deserved credit, of course, but those working behind them were unsung heroes. The holistic approach was the key to success.

Alongside Brian Cody's Kilkenny, Tyrone are the GAA's great modern success story, not a county stinking rich with money, just wise and efficient in how they used what they had. And reading "Raising the Red Hand Higher" leaves you in little doubt there will be no disappearing act for some time to come.

Irish Independent

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