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Sport has to be part of our recovery

IRELAND will have a new government next month. Fine Gael will be the largest party in the next Dáil and Enda Kenny will be Taoiseach, possibly with the support of Eamon Gilmore's Labour Party. That much we know.

Presuming the next Government goes its full five-year term, it will be the toughest five years many here will ever experience. That much we also know.

But there is plenty we don't know. The focus of much of the election campaign has been on creating jobs, getting the health system functioning properly and fixing the banks so lending can begin again. What is worrying, though, is that a rounded, holistic vision of this country's future seems markedly absent from the campaign. There is more to rebuilding than austerity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said last November that he wants to start measuring his country's progress "not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life". And he added: "GDP is an incomplete way of measuring a country's progress."

Sport is one of those ways. Just as arts and culture is too.

This country only woke up to the possibilities of sport in the late 1990s, which is when investment in it became serious. At government level, it was released from its traditional home in education, promoted to a seat at the cabinet table.

Since 2000, almost €1.9bn has been pumped into sport. If one problem has been that much of that was directed towards capital projects -- and often for local political gain -- another has been that the willingness of government to throw large amounts of cash at sport has been accompanied by the unwillingness of policy makers to outline what it is ultimately hoped to achieve through such large outlays. The recent history of Irish sports funding, in fact, is littered with stories of waste and cronyism of the worst kind.

Politicians and policy makers have struggled to make the leap from looking at sport as a country's toy department to actually seeing it for what it is. It is all very well being able to find your way to the airport for a photo shoot with Ireland's latest returning hero, but how many in the country's political classes understand the true value of sport.

As Sarah O'Connor of the Federation of Irish Sports puts it: "There is a perception out there that sport just happens. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sport needs to be planned, managed, delivered and above all financed. Sport has the potential to be a tool in the economic recovery of our nation and should not be a victim of it."

In economic terms, recent research claims that sport supports 38,000 jobs, contributes 1.4 per cent to GDP, stimulates €1.8bn of household spending each year and is directly responsible for an annual overseas tourist spend of €200m. (In the last five days alone, Dublin has played host to football fans from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and rugby fans from France, who have been spending money in bars, restaurants, shops, hotels and so on.)

Last autumn, the Labour Party's Mary Upton published a detailed sports policy document entitled 'A Level Playing Field' covering all aspects of, as she said at the time, "transforming sport in Ireland". Key elements of this document have now been incorporated in the party's election manifesto. On the surface at least Labour appear to accept that the management of sports funding in Ireland has been seriously flawed and is willing to tackle it in a meaningful way. In this, though, it would appear they stand alone.

The Green Party's manifesto confirms its commitment to keeping arts and culture at the cabinet table, but does not mention sport. Fianna Fáil also are committed to keeping arts and culture in cabinet, but again sport is conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, its manifesto has just two references to sport -- positioning Dublin as an important centre for recreational tourism and attracting suitable major sporting events to Ireland -- which are utterly vacuous.

Which brings us to Fine Gael and the next Taoiseach. Enda Kenny (pictured), apparently, 'loves his sport', but in the world of realpolitik that doesn't count for anything. There are already murmurings that sport will not retain a senior ministry.

The party's 'detailed plan for sport', which took several days of phone calls and emails last week to procure, consists of 11 bullet points. In fairness, most strike the right chord (promoting good governance, increasing participation, a national sports audit, and so on) but the lack of real detail means the whiff of afterthought hangs over it. (Although the IRFU will be happy that FG will not pursue the Green Party's daft free-to-air proposals and the GPA will be happy that there is a commitment to continuing players' grants.)

The next Government will have a lot on its plate, but real and sustained recovery comes in many forms. Sport must be part of that, and not just an afterthought.

Sunday Indo Sport