Sport will be an easy target for the chop
T he Irish sporting fraternity is very edgy at the moment as December's Budget draws nearer. These are truly desperate times, and we all know that means truly desperate measures are called for.
Over the last decade or more, sport in Ireland did ever so nicely thank you very much. The largesse was passed around -- even if some did much better than others, especially those who had a Government minister on speed dial.
There was no shortage of money. Over €700m was spent on the sports capital programme between 1998 and 2009; over €600m has been paid into the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund since it was established in 2001; the Irish Sports Council has received an annual budget since it was set up in 1999, which was €51m last year and €49.8m this year. But as the economy has slipped further into the mire, the Government has being chipping away at its spend on sport. Excluding grants for the Aviva Stadium and the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, which is now administered by the Department of Agriculture, sport received €143m in 2008, €131m in 2009 and €117m this year, a fall in three years of 18 per cent.
The problem with the spending, of course, was that without any sense of an overarching philosophy, it was random and unfocused. It may be that over €700m was spent on capital projects, but what have we to show for that outlay? We can't even convince countries to complete their preparations for the Olympics in London in two years here, primarily because we don't have the facilities. Even success stories like our amateur boxers bear all the hallmarks of having been achieved in spite of the policy makers, and not because of them.
It is against this backdrop that there has been plenty of noise in recent weeks as sporting organisations grow more fearful of draconian cuts. It is just 16 months since the Bord Snip report recommended savings of almost €22m in sport, made up for the most part by a massive cut in the Irish Sports Council's budget.
But there has been a concerted effort to get a message across to politicians, and to the public, that sport matters, not just because it is good for the welfare of the nation, but because it brings in money to the Exchequer. The most recent examples have been the reports published by the sports council and the Gaelic Players' Association.
It has now become more common for these pre-Budget submissions to be prepared by independent experts as sporting bodies -- never traditionally competent at making anything other than an emotive case to government for funding -- have sought to quantify the economic benefits of participation and physical activity.
The GPA, for instance, puts a figure of €193.5m as the real value to the Irish economy of inter-county hurling and football matches, while the ISC claims that for every €100 the government spends on sport, it gets €149 back in the form of taxes and other revenues.
Then there was Thursday's high-profile photo opportunity with Sports Minister Mary Hanafin, when the likes of Lar Corbett, Paul O'Connell (pictured) and Katie Taylor fronted a submission which effectively claimed Irish sport could not absorb any more cuts. (What does it tell you about the political classes here that a minister was prepared to take part in such a stunt even as the IMF are in town?)
The submission -- a joint effort involving the GAA, FAI, IRFU, GUI, OCI, the Paralympics Council, Special Olympics, and the Federation of Irish Sports, which represents 68 sports -- noted: "It must be remembered that only a small proportion of the Government funding goes to elite performers. Over 80 per cent of the money provided by the Government is invested in sport at grassroots level in creating the programmes that will produce top-class athletes and just as importantly help improve the health and well-being of our citizens."
In the UK, the cuts in the recent emergency budget to its sport spend were pretty wide-ranging and merciless. Events in the last few days here have heightened fears among the country's sporting bodies.
And there are two factors mitigating against them right now. First is traditional political ambivalence. When cash is plentiful it will be fired at sport because it's great for image and it's a vote-getter; when cash is not plentiful it's an easy target. Of course the great irony is that those who throw money at sport are the very cause of its subsequent squandering by failing to instigate a culture of accountability. But should sport be punished because of administrative and political failures?
Second, if the IMF are going to get their hands on this country's finances, it will be slash and burn without discrimination and without any recourse to the arguments -- sound or otherwise -- being mounted by sporting organisations.
There is no reason to presume that anything that happens in the December Budget will be fair or equitable. We can be as certain as we like of the importance of physical activity to a nation such as ours but when the axe falls sport will be an easy target. And if anyone likes an easy target more than a politician, it's a banker.