Sport is an essential part of modern life
'The relationship between the state and sport in a new millennium remains an amalgam of achievement and failure, and good intentions and rampant hypocrisy.' - Paul Rouse, Sport & Ireland: A History
Work is underway on a new sports policy for Ireland. The aim, according to the Minster for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Paschal Donohoe, is to put a plan in place for sport in Ireland over the next 10 years and to set the agenda for the newly established Sport Ireland.
This is a welcome move - even if setting the agenda for the newly established Sport Ireland might have been a better idea before it was set-up, rather than after.
Anyway, the first step on the road to creating some kind of coherent national strategy has been taken. It will not have a narrow focus, it will encompass health, education, tourism and social benefits. If there is scepticism that this country is capable of at last pulling all these strands together in pursuit of a common ambition for sport and physical activity it is still a positive development, one which should be embraced.
The process formally began recently at an event hosted by Donohoe and Minister of State Michael Ring at the National Sports Campus, which will have a very important role to play as it becomes, over time, the new home of Irish sport. In his opening remarks, Donohoe emphasised the wider context of sport, and said that "greater clarity is needed on the strategic direction, desired outcomes and funding for sport across all levels".
He continued: "It is a complex landscape and there is a need to adopt a more joined-up approach on the structures and roles for the delivery of sport policy, across all levels, from local to government level. This is not an easy task but it is necessary to ensure that resources and funding are targeted effectively, that there is no duplication of functions and that strategies can be achieved."
This gets to the heart of the problem with Irish sport. That's not to say things haven't improved because clearly they have. But it's 20 years since this country's last policy document on sport, and while we have muddled on, those elements of Irish sport which have been successful have achieved that success largely off the back of their own hard work and ingenuity. And by looking around the world at their contemporaries. Success is not just measured by results, but also by how an organisation runs itself and how it increases its participation levels.
Over the last 20 years, the Irish state's involvement has been random and haphazard - some of it good, some of it less so. Positive interventions have eminated from the Department of Sport and via the minister of the day, although not always; by and large when other sections of government get involved in sport it becomes far more problematic. We have seen this recently in the difficulties surrounding the government's €30m grant to Cork County Board, which did not originate in the department, and also in the Billy Walsh controversy.
Donohoe quoted a passage at the event in the campus from Paul Rouse's superb new book, Sport & Ireland: A History, to the effect that sport "carries the capacity to provoke extravagant emotions - good and bad - that somehow seem proportionate, even when they are clearly not at all so when later considered. It is with this capacity of sport to seize the emotions that sport finds its meaning. It is an essential part of modern life; a vital presence."
Why is it a vital presence?
That is a question that is harder to answer, and harder for the machinery of government to grasp. Because sport is not something you can pigeonhole so easily as to isolate in one small arm of government. This has been Ireland's failure.
Are we serious about producing a national strategy, and about realising sport's full potential? There are 15 government departments, and sport touches at least 12: the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Finance, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Enviromnent, Community and Local Affairs, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
The problem does not wholly lie in convincing the Irish sporting family about the value of a national policy. Rather, it lies with convincing everyone else - and in particular other government departments - that they also have a part to play, that they too can be instruments of public good by promoting sport and physical activity.
As Rouse writes: "In sport, people meet their partners, share friendships, make common ground with their families, travel near and far, drink, dance, and sing. The local loyalties of sport in Irish life - particularly, but not exclusively, cultivated by the GAA - are central to this. In general, networks of life run through and around sporting clubs and sporting events."
Sunday Indo Sport