Friday 23 February 2018

Plan gives Minister food for thought

John Greene

John Greene

The Irish political system has never had a grasp of sport. Over the last 20 years it has singularly failed to follow any kind of cohesive direction to help safeguard participation on health and wellbeing grounds.

It has pumped tens of millions of euro into the country on an ad hoc basis, without any kind of coherent strategy. Given the amount of money spent, in particular, between the late 1990s and 2008, Ireland should be a European leader in terms of having a spread of top class facilities accessible to all. Instead, those with good political connections or with strong back-up, like GAA clubs, were best positioned to access the lion's share of money.

Sport itself must take some of the blame for this. For too long sports bodies were happy to hold the hand out and accept the government's largesse in good times.

But in the last couple of years there has been a concerted effort to present a united front to government under the umbrella of the Federation of Irish Sport. In total, 74 national governing bodies have come together, including the GAA, FAI and IRFU, to petition the government not to cut its investment in sport.

Last week, a report into the current state of Irish sport entitled Delivering pride and passion at home and overseas was published and, to coincide with this, a delegation met with ministers Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring to discuss this pre-Budget submission.

The high-powered delegation consisted of Páraic Duffy, John Delaney, Philip Browne, Sarah Keane of Swim Ireland and from the Federation, Fergus Murphy, chairman, and Sarah O'Connor.

A cut in sports funding appears inevitable given the nature of some of the reductions in public expenditure in health, education and social welfare that are predicted. But what the NGBs are attempting to do is change the level of political engagement with sport so that there is some sort of understanding of the role that it plays in the economy.

In choosing Seán O'Brien (pictured), Bernard Brogan, Lar Corbett, Deirdre Ryan, Owen Heary and Gráinne Murphy to be the faces of this campaign last week, sporting bodies were showcasing a mix of professionals and amateurs to highlight the positive aspects of Irish sport.

But this year's submission runs deeper than just focusing on achievement alone. As always, funding is central to the NGBs and they are keen to protect current levels in particular and also to earn sport a say in the allocation of the capital grants which have been promised over the next few years.

More than that, however, this year's submission is about trying to change the traditional and, it has to be said, narrow view of sport by politicians. Government needs to recognise and understand sport's wider contribution to the state.

According to the Federation, sport wants to do more for the country but government must engage to enable this to happen.

Some simple ideas are highlighted to emphasise the point, such as the fact that the hours teachers spend coaching school teams do not qualify for the extra hours they must work under the Croke Park Agreement, and although the HSE has a huge health promotion division, there is little or no interaction with sport.

Tourism is the one key area identified where sport can have a huge impact.

"Sports Tourism is the fastest growing sector in the global travel industry and is estimated to be worth $600bn annually," says Sarah O'Connor. "We have some fantastic natural sports assets here such as our links golf courses, lakes and rivers and of course two world-class stadia. We would like the government to facilitate the setting up of a specific entity to focus on bidding for sports events, both large and small. There is already an excellent model in Denmark where Sport Denmark is now successful in two out of every three bids it makes."

The suggestion is that the government should draw up a five-year masterplan to look at sport in the widest possible terms, encompassing health, education, tourism and business. The plan, says O'Connor, should analyse where money is currently being spent by the taxpayer on sport or sport-related activities and where it really needs to be spent.

"In this latter context we are calling on the government to work with all of us involved in sport as to where the new -- and much welcomed -- Sports Capital Fund of €30 million should be spent.

"Money is too scarce to waste any of it. It must be spent where it will do the most good -- for sport and ultimately for the country. Each NGB will have identified its strategic priorities in terms of sporting infrastructure. These priorities must be taken into account by the Department in allocating these funds.

"In fact, our research indicates that sport would far prefer to see any funds available invested in people and programmes rather than facilities at this point in time. While we appreciate sports capital funding sport in Ireland would far prefer to see its current expenditure budget protected even if that has to be at the expense of the sports capital budget."

The proposal to develop a plan along these lines makes a lot of sense so what has the minister to lose by agreeing to it? Varadkar openly admits he is not a sports-mad minister. Ironically, this may not be such a bad thing as sport hasn't always been best served by ministers who doubled up as fans. What's most needed now at political level is someone with the ability to step back and assess this area objectively.

An American political writer once claimed that the world of politics is always 20 years behind the world of thought. Let's hope he was wrong.

Sunday Indo Sport

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