Tuesday 12 December 2017

New team must take some hard decisions

John Greene

John Greene

ALL the signals emanating from the new coalition Government last week were that there is no time to be lost. And so, in keeping with that theme, we can expect that new ministers Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring have been getting straight into their brief in the newly constituted Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

There might have been initial concerns in Irish sporting circles when it was announced on Wednesday that it and tourism would have a strange bedfellow in transport, a monster brief in its own right capable of totally overshadowing the other two. By subsequently appointing a junior minister, namely Ring, with specific responsibility for tourism and sport, the new Taoiseach has shown an understanding of this and consequently will have eased fears somewhat on that score.

Presumably, the dynamic of the arrangement will be that Varadkar will work primarily on the transport side of the brief while Ring concentrates on tourism and sport. That said, as only Varadkar of the two sits at cabinet, he will need to be on top of the entire portfolio.

On the face of it, Varadkar and Ring are very different characters, but one trait they seem to share in common is energy.

One of the hallmarks of the outgoing administration was the air of tiredness that hung over it. When Mary Hanafin was appointed Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport last March, it was seen in the wider political context as a demotion from her position in the Department of Social and Family Affairs (which in turn had been seen as a demotion from Education and Science). Despite initial optimism among sports bodies that she was a good appointment, Hanafin failed to sparkle and her 11 months in the role will be quickly forgotten.

That should not be the case with the incoming duo, both of whom are on their maiden ministerial voyage. This at least should ensure a fresh and energetic approach. As with all of Enda Kenny's ministerial appointments, the first 100 days in office offer a chance for change and it should be grasped.

Then again, those with an interest in seeing a big improvement in how sport is managed in this country will not have taken any comfort from Varadkar's first major interview on his elevation to ministerial office on Morning Ireland last Thursday. In a lengthy piece, the following exchange with presenter áine Lawlor was the only reference to sport.

áL: "Just one final question for you minister -- this one posed by our colleague Darren Frehill, who as you know does the sport around here several days during the week. He was noting that you were the new Minister for Sport, as well as tourism and travel, and he said, 'will you ask Leo Varadkar, has he any interest in sport'."

LV: "I do, but I'm not a very sporty person to be brutally honest, but I do attend rugby matches and I did play for the Oireachtas team a few times and actually I did play cricket when I was a kid so I'm hoping to meet and congratulate the Irish cricket team when they come home."

The last thing sport needs right now is another minister who excels at photo shoots in the arrivals hall of Dublin Airport. Sport is crying out for direction and political leadership; for someone who is prepared to take hard decisions, and to develop and introduce clear policies.

In this regard, RTE's excellent documentary last week, Naked Election, offered some hope. There was a telling moment which may give a clue as to how Varadkar (pictured) will approach his new brief. The Dublin West TD was one of six candidates featured in the fly-on-the-wall programme on the election campaign, and early on he was asked how he was feeling about the days of canvassing that lay ahead.

"At the moment it's dread because I don't particularly like election campaigns," he said. "I love my conferences and policy documents and round-table meetings -- I actually find door to door quite hard work. I suppose I'm not a natural people person, if you know what I mean."

If this is a more accurate reflection of how he will operate in office than his throwaway remark on Morning Ireland, then he can be a success.

Ring, meanwhile, is close to the Taoiseach which can't be a bad thing as far as sport is concerned. An experienced politician -- he has been a TD since 1992 -- his performances in the Dáil over the years show he is not one to shirk a fight. This is also no bad thing.

Moving on from the personalities to the policies, and there are some specific pledges relating to sport covered in the new programme for government. They are:

  • We will make strategic policy formulation the primary function of the department, with line agencies and bodies responsible for policy implementation.
  • Responsibility for policy-making will revert to the department, while agencies will be accountable for implementing policy, assessing outcomes and value for money.
  • All state funding will be subject to the beneficiaries signing up to a dispute resolution service, a code of governance and a new mandatory code of conduct regarding child protection in sport.
  • A number of positions on the Sports Council's governing board will be made directly electable.
  • The National Sports Facilities Strategy will become the blueprint for the future development of all sports facilities in the country and will inform any future investment on sports infrastructure.
  • In future, sports funding should prioritise projects which further greater participation in sport on a local and national level.

There is also a promise to focus on niche tourism products, including sport, and on event tourism, such as the Volvo Ocean Race and the Solheim Cup.

The heavy emphasis on governance and standards, and on greater accountability, particularly on the spending side, is to be welcomed. Getting off on the right foot will be central to implementing change.

Sunday Indo Sport

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