Friday 17 January 2020

More money pledged but anger persists over cuts

Spending increase for sport next year is very much geared towards capital projects, writes John Greene

Barry O’Brien, CEO of the campus authority, and Minister Leo Varadkar view plans for the campus, which will recieve €13m in 2014
Barry O’Brien, CEO of the campus authority, and Minister Leo Varadkar view plans for the campus, which will recieve €13m in 2014

John Greene

The cut to the Irish Sports Council's budget will now not be as severe as that announced last week but there remain anxious times ahead for many of the country's associations.

Last Tuesday's Budget cut the sports council's funding for next year by a whopping eight per cent, from €43.1m down to €40m, but the Sunday Independent can confirm that Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar plans to divert some money from other areas of his Department back to sport to mitigate against the reduction.

There was widespread shock and anger among leading figures in Irish sport at the severity of the cut when it was announced, but this was mirrored by surprise and disappointment in the Department at the negative reaction, because while current spending was certainly hit hard, the overall sports budget was dramatically increased on the back of a significant proposed investment on the capital side.

Although no final decisions have been made, and it will be several weeks before they are, there is speculation that the reprieve will see an additional amount of between €1m and €2m given to the sports council. The minister refused to be drawn this weekend on the exact figure but he did state that he would be seeking clear information on what use it would be put to.

"Overall, we are seeing a first increase in the sports budget since the crash, although it is heavily weighted on the capital side," said Varadkar. "I appreciate that the cut to the sports council is very deep and I do plan to alleviate it, but that will very much depend on how it is to be spent."

This is the third time in recent weeks that Varadkar has said publicly that he wants to see how money is spent. Aside from the events surrounding a recent High Court case taken against the sports council, it is thought there remains a level of dissatisfaction that some of the national governing bodies for sport remain rooted in old habits and are not providing value for money. This, in fairness, is a frustration shared by the sports council.

The Government has pledged €93.5m to sport next year, compared to just €74.6m in 2013, but the majority of that will go towards capital projects. As reported here last week, there will be a new round of sports capital grants early in the new year and Minister for Sport Michael Ring will have €30m made available to fund that.

The biggest surprise, however, was the allocation of money towards a new state-of-the-art indoor arena at the National Sports Campus. The arena, which has been costed at €30m plus VAT, includes an athletics track, a training centre for the 20 indoor sports, with flexible floor marking, space dividers and spectator seating. It also provides for a national gymnastics centre which will be designed to benefit other athletes who can use dedicated gymnastic equipment and fixed facilities.

Given the economic conditions, the original idea of the National Sports Campus Development Authority was to go down the philanthropic route to get this ambitious project off the ground. However, Varadkar has been an enthusiastic backer of the campus since taking office in 2011 and it is understood that up to €13m will be made available to get the indoor arena started. Speaking in the Dáil last week, Varadkar described the arena as "the missing piece of sporting infrastructure in this country".

Between the campus and the new round of sports capital grants, Department officials have put a conservative estimate on the number of jobs which could be created over the next three years at 450. The money to fund the programme will come from the proceeds of the sale of the National Lottery licence.

Indeed, the ministers and officials were genuinely upbeat in the wake of Tuesday's Budget, believing that sport had done comparatively well and, according to one source, there was surprise at the negative reaction. When looking at the Budget in its entirety this reduction was part of a theme, where heavy consideration has been given to capital projects over current spending. There was also the news last week that there is now a stay on the plan to ban alcohol sponsorship of sport until alternative sources of income have been identified. Politically this has been seen as a significant victory over the Department of Health which had been pushing hard for a ban that would have hit sporting organisations very hard in the pocket.

However, several leading figures in Irish sport contacted last week remain angry over the Budget, despite the Minister's pledge. It's the sixth consecutive year that NGB funding has been cut. One prominent official said that a lot of associations were "stunned" while a statement released last Tuesday evening by the Federation of Irish Sport, the umbrella group for NGBs, said it was "extremely disappointed".

"This is the funding that enables over 100 Irish sports organisations to run sports development programmes essential to delivering sporting opportunities to all, provide much needed support to grassroots clubs and volunteers as well as providing assistance to our international athletes," said CEO Sarah O'Connor.

That €40m – or whatever the final sum will be – covers all aspect of Irish sport from high performance and participation, to everything in between, including developing women in sport initiatives.

At the heart of the anger, then, is a feeling among sports bodies that although Varadkar and Ring are engaging with them, there are strong prejudices at the Cabinet table and among officials in key departments against sport – a fundamental lack of understanding of what is happening on the ground, and a clear lack

of appreciation of what is being achieved with what in reality is a very small amount of money.

For instance, if the Government truly believes that sport can meaningfully help tackle health issues such as heart disease and obesity, then why not invite sports organisations to come forward with schemes – and they would only be too willing – and insist that a small fraction of the €13.3bn earmarked for the Department of Health (just 0.1 per cent of that would be €13m) be used by the HSE to fund them. That's a win-win for everyone, and yet we repeatedly hear from NGBs that they find it difficult to get the HSE to engage with them.

Even allowing for the fact that next year's cut is not as bad as first outlined, it is a cut nonetheless, and a continuation of the downward spiral that will have far-reaching consequences across all levels of sport. The successive funding reductions will combine to squeeze Irish sport even harder, at the top and at the bottom. There was an example of this pointed out in The Irish Times yesterday: In 2008 almost €2.7m was used to fund over 200 athletes but this year €1.7m was spread across 81 athletes and 14 sports.

Of course this isn't entirely down to cutbacks. Some sports have gone backwards in that time in terms of high performance and have thus lost out on funding. Money wasn't always put to the best possible use, but the feeling is that there is a greater awareness and knowledge now of what true high performance is about and an understanding among those in receipt of funding that it comes with an obligation to ensure the highest possible standards apply. Certainly, there are expectations of NGBs from the sports council that standards of excellence are met.

But the continued erosion of the amount of money available is seriously undermining sport's ability to deliver its message to all sections of the population, and the health and education spin-offs that accrue. This is the greatest fear.

Sunday Independent

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