Saturday 16 December 2017

Ministers who put the fun into sports funding

One upshot of the current economic crisis is that sports funding will be severely reduced. This is, of course, a bad thing. The more investment in sport the better. Sport provides all kinds of benefits for society.

However, and this is a big however, nothing epitomises the kind of cronyism which has landed us in the current mess like the allocation of sports funding.

Sports funding is supposed to be awarded on a wholly objective basis following assessment by expert civil servants. In reality, the picture is very different. When Charlie McCreevy was Minister for Finance and Jim McDaid was Minister for Sport, their counties ranked first and second in terms of sports funding. When they left, the counties dropped to 24th and 26th.

When Brian Cowen became Minister for Finance, Offaly moved up the league table from 26th to sixth. And when John O'Donoghue was Minister for Sport, South Kerry received more money from the department than many other entire counties. In 2005, for example, 18 counties received less money than John's small half of Kerry. Meath, with more than twice the population of South Kerry, received less funding than the constituency represented by The Great National Laughing Stock.

The only inference which can be drawn from this is that, presumably through the deployment of telekinetic brain waves, these Ministers were able to subconsciously influence the decisions of those 'objective' civil servants. Sporting provision, which should be an important part of the national infrastructure, was treated as an opportunity for politicians to bribe their constituents into voting for Fianna Fáil.

This carry on ends up making things terribly inefficient. To take one example, we'll conduct a little thought experiment. Think of the government's apparently inexplicable decision to include Anglo Irish Bank in the bank guarantee, the decision which more than anything else created the current shameful morass. Now think of the senior members of the government whooping it up in the Galway Races tent with senior figures in Anglo Irish and people who held a large number of shares in said institution. Now draw your own conclusions. See? Someone always pays for this, and it's generally not the people involved.

Irish sports facilities are not good enough. We don't have enough public swimming pools, we don't have a national indoor athletics stadium or a velodrome, we don't have enough indoor facilities full stop. Some of these facilities could have been built with money which was instead squandered on letting ministers act the big man at local level.

Yet, as the country falls to bits around us, perhaps it's worth remembering the sporting project which more than anything typified the hubris of Tiger Ireland, the Bertie Bowl. We do not have much to be glad about at the moment but one thing we can be thankful for is that Fianna Fáil did not get their wish of building a one billion euro vanity project of a national sports stadium. It would look like a very shameful structure now.

Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I wonder if we would have ended up with, at your expense, a jerry-built stadium into which some of those Galway Races tent businessmen might insert a professional soccer franchise. Maybe that's paranoia. Then again, the cynical explanation is often the right one in Irish politics.

I still remember Jim McDaid on television making a mock out of a journalist (not me, I wouldn't have had the patience to listen to him) who questioned the worth of the Bertie Bowl project. We had loads of money, said Wrong Way Jim, why not spend it on something like this? Sycophantic journalists used to call him The Minister For Fun when he came out with guff like this. Future generations may wonder why we elected to high office so many people you wouldn't trust to look after your dog. Your dog? Your goldfish.

And not too long ago Martin Whirlybird Cullen was saying that the biggest loss for Irish sport in recent years had been the failure to build the one billion euro monstrosity. There are times when I think that the famous Useless Gobshites headline erred on the side of kindness.

Our facilities probably never will be good enough. Meanwhile, Mary Hanafin's notion of being Minister for Sport seems solely to involve going to the airport to meet people who've come back with medals. I suppose it keeps her out of mischief.

Sunday Independent

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