So here we go again. The Department of Sport is off on its travels once more. Uprooted and stuck into what looks suspiciously like the runt of the Government's litter, the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, or as someone tweeted last week, the department of so on and so forth.
It will all be overseen by Catherine Martin of the Green Party, our first Minister for So On and So Forth.
It's a little hard to take. On the one hand we claim we are serious about sport, on the other we banish it to a strange new mix-match of a department that has neither rhyme nor reason to it.
The saving grace, unintended as it was, is that the internal wranglings of one of the coalition parties has led to sport getting a seat at the cabinet table. Dara Calleary is the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil and there was considerable surprise when he was named as the government chief whip. Calleary himself admitted he was disappointed not to be chosen for a senior ministerial post. So his subsequent appointment as a junior minister for Sport and the Gaeltacht was at least good news for sport because while junior ministers don't sit at cabinet meetings, the chief whip does. For a few days there had been genuine nervousness that sport might struggle to be heard.
Sport, then, will at least have a voice where it matters.
On the basis that the Minister for So On and So Forth will be very busy with, well, so on and so forth, the assumption is that Calleary (pictured) will be the lead minister on sporting matters.
The hope, from sport's point of view, is that Calleary's role as chief whip will not unduly overshadow the energy and drive he can bring to the portfolio.
To be fair, the recent experience with sport ministers has been quite a positive one in that they have actively engaged with the development of the nation's sporting infrastructure - including governance, resources, and facilities.
There's no doubt that things have been improving in the last decade, but remember Ireland was coming from a long way off the standards that were being set in many other countries. And there is still a way to go.
There are some ambitious targets in the new programme for government, the most important of which is centred around getting more people active, removing "barriers to participation". The government wants "total overall participation in sport to reach at least 60 per cent of the population by 2027". (The most recent figures suggest that it's currently around 46 per cent.)
It wants to "promote the value of physical activity as part of everyday life" and to "place a strong emphasis on swimming, cycling, walking and running". All of which, of course, is easier said than done. But there are three pillars which the government can reinforce to support its ambitions.
When we finally emerge from this pandemic, it will be interesting to get a real understanding of just how much it played a part in changing people's habits. Being confined to close quarters, not being able to travel any distance from your home, has - anecdotally at least - led to an increase in the number of people exercising. We will need to see the numbers before we can be sure just what the real picture is.
The argument that people were more active because they wanted to mind their physical and mental health has been made but surely it runs deeper than that. One of the great barriers to being more active is adjusting our mentality, to making the time in our daily lives to exercise. It can be an easy trap to fall into, convincing ourselves that there is just no time for it in our busy day. During lockdown, the nature of our days changed, and there was time. So as we slowly return to some kind of normal, we need to convince people there is time for exercise in their daily routine.
That's the first pillar - using the experience of the last three months to reinforce the idea that you can incorporate exercise into your lifestyle. We all know the benefits - it's just that the first step is often the hardest one.
The second pillar involves changing the language we use around sport. We want people to be active; we want them to exercise; we want them to be physically literate. Of course sport has positive associations, yet for many people it does not. In fact, the word 'sport' is a turn-off. It reminds them of not being picked on school teams, of coaches who gave them a hard time, of winning and losing and all the fears and insecurities that go with it . . . Sport is for all, at least it should be, and we need to emphasise that it is 'play'. It is meant to be fun. Sport is not only about competition, it is not just for those who come first, second or third.
The third pillar is the most important of all, because it involves improving the delivery of physical education in schools. This means changing habits around physical activity in all schools, including pre-schools. This can only be done by investing in the system so that adequate resources are there, and by radically improving facilities in schools. Particular focus is needed on schools in poor socio-economic areas because poverty is a major barrier to being active.
The new government has promised that more schools will "have indoor facilities for PE and local communities have access and extra amenities available to them".
PE in schools has improved. But it needs to get even better. Obesity is a major problem in children in this country and the value of daily exercise is impossible to overstate.
A study 10 years ago found that only one in 10 secondary school children received the recommended minimum of PE minutes each week. Two years ago, an all-island study found that just 13.5 per cent of children were meeting the recommended guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity a day.
This is why it's important that sport has a voice when key decisions are being taken. There is a lot to be done and it will take energy and commitment to move forward. There are a lot of bright people working in and around Irish sport, but whether we like it or not we need the upper levels of the State machinery focused and on message. Getting a seat at the cabinet table should be a big help.
And so on and so forth . . .
Sunday Indo Sport