Sunday 25 February 2018

Masterplan holds solution for Irish sport

One department with one budget can repair funding system flaws.

Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade Eamon Gilmore T.D.
Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade Eamon Gilmore T.D.
John Greene

John Greene

When the GAA recently secured a grant of €600,000 from the Government towards the cost of a major redevelopment of its London base in Ruislip, it highlighted a key flaw in the Irish sport system.

It was a great coup for the Association to get the money – which was awarded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and did not come from the annual sports budget. There was criticism of the decision to give money to a capital project in another country as opposed to a project in Ireland, but the GAA's argument that the money would directly benefit the emigrant Irish community was obviously convincing enough to sway the minister, Eamon Gilmore.

But therein is the flaw. Because this money came from a department other than that charged with administering sports funding and, supposedly, sports policy, there is a strong case to be made that it was a random act, independent of all other acts of funding to sport this year. It's doubtful that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport was even consulted about it, at least not in any meaningful way. These are the kind of manoeuvres that are all too prevalent in the Irish system.

The GAA is not alone in having figured out that you can dramatically increase your levels of funding by playing the field as it were – approaching different sections of government with different proposals tailored to each particular section. It's clever, and wholly legitimate on the GAA's part, and frankly says more about the way the public service is set up than anything else.

It is encouraging to know, therefore, that at least when it comes to sport a genuine effort is now under way to address this anomaly. Work has begun on a policy statement for Irish sport which will clearly set out all the various sport-related policies across all arms of government. It's a masterplan for sport.

And it won't be easy. There are many decades of custom and practice to overcome, and relations to be built between different areas of government not so used to working together. But every piece of resistance or inefficiency that's removed from a system, improves it. And so if a way can be found to unite all elements of sports policy and funding under one umbrella then the benefits will be enormous. It sounds simple – of course it is the way of these things that it will be anything but.

There is a determination in the Department to pursue this vigorously, with the backing of Ministers Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring, but the suspicion is that they are up against it. According to sources, early discussions have been positive but there is a huge amount of work to be done, and there are barriers to be broken.

At the moment, the Department is engaged in a working group to produce the National Physical Activity Plan. This involves officials from the departments of health, education and children and youth affairs, and also local authorities, the Federation of Irish Sport, the Irish Sports Council and others. Ultimately, if it comes to pass, the plan will form part of the masterplan. So too will the new Sport Ireland, the amalgamation of the sports council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority.

The notion of one plan has so much going for it. Elite sport, participation, grassroots activity, physical activity and PE would all fall into its remit, as would the development of facilities and capital funding.

But there is a recognition too that those who have a clear vision for the future of Irish sport believe that one minister, with one budget and one plan is the best way forward. Minister Ring's engagement with sport has been energetic and he is keen, now that there are significant forward strides. The senior minister, Varadkar, has surprised many with how he has taken to this brief and he too is backing this.

There is no sense in other Government departments, such as Health, Education and Foreign Affairs, and agencies like the HSE and Fáilte Ireland continually going on solo runs, creating schemes and supporting projects haphazardly.

The problem is that Government departments and agencies are notoriously protective of their budgets – they are happy to have a discretionary element which they can allocate to sports projects if it suits, or not, as the case may be, but relinquishing control of that to some kind of sports masterplan will not sit well with them.

It's a pity that such small-mindedness could undo what is a good idea which, ultimately, has the best of intentions for Irish sport at heart. All the evidence points towards the need for this to happen.

There are very few aspects of sport and physical activity where Ireland could be said to be performing well in terms of international standards. At elite level, we are not consistently having any real impact; at grassroots level, study after study shows that our participation rates are not good enough, obesity levels and inactivity levels are excessively high and our schools do not provide near enough physical activity for our children. All these come under different government agencies – but at least if one minister and one department were responsible, things could start to improve for the better.

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