Thursday, 4 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Connaughton: When I spoke on this Bill last night, I agreed it is a good idea in principle. It is important that everything to do with sport is properly overseen and given the leadership it deserves. A total of 30 governing bodies have indicated they intend to use the new complex. How sure is the Minister of State that they will use it? I am delighted the FAI will use the campus as its headquarters but what about rugby, Gaelic games and hockey? How does the campus link with Croke Park? There has been much talk about Abbotstown over the years and the legislation will be passed shortly. Will we soon find out what organisations will take part or is there a danger that when the campus is built half the organisations mentioned will not take part?
What costs are involved for the organisations concerned? Will they pay rent on a long-term lease? Will this project pay for itself or will it be funded by the taxpayer? We all support this legislation but the National Aquatic Centre has had a chequered history over its short lifespan. We hope that whatever is built, more thought will be put into its management than went into the National Aquatic Centre. Things went badly wrong there. It is not that we did not want such a centre but I hope the way we went about getting it will not be replicated in other projects.
I heard the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, patting himself on the back in recent weeks. It is difficult to understand, however, that only 23% of second level schools have a sports hall. I am not involved in education but I would have thought the figure would be much higher. When we talk so much about obesity and related issues, physical education should be available in every school and should be augmented by the provision of a sports hall. If children are missed at that stage, it is hard for them to develop a new found interest later in life.
Mr. Ferris: When the Minister spoke on this Bill, he referred to the enormous pride that comes from sporting achievements at all levels. In particular, he mentioned the sense of belonging and identity that it engenders in communities. I can identify with this, because this year my club, Ardfert, won the all-Ireland junior club championship. Apart from the players and those otherwise connected to the club, the whole area was involved and interested. The progress of a small club team from a predominantly hurling area as it won an all-Ireland football championship brought a great boost to the community, the wider area and the county. I noticed the same level of commitment and pride in other clubs we met along the way from within and outside the county, both in Munster and in the all-Ireland semi-final when we played Monaghan and the all-Ireland final when we beat Loughrea. It can truly be said, therefore, that the GAA clubs are often the heart and soul of many communities, be they in rural parishes such as Ardfert or in urban west Belfast or Dublin. However, many of these clubs do not have permanent pitches or clubhouses. Most of us have made inquiries regarding sports capital grants on behalf of not only GAA clubs but soccer, rugby, boxing, rowing and sailing clubs that are in need of support. This is a problem particularly in Dublin, other cities and in large towns due to land values and the structure of ownership. One is unlikely to find many landowners willing to donate or sell a field in the way that might happen with a farmer in a rural parish.
The problem was brought home to me when I was part of an election team in Clondalkin a few years ago where a local soccer team catering for children had no such facility. In a particular area the whole amenity was an old container. A pitch was provided by Dublin Corporation and there was a container to cater for thousands of young people. I am aware of a club in the city which won a junior B championship two years ago which still has no pitch or clubhouse. It is interesting to note that less than 20% of Dublin City Council pitches are leased to the GAA. There are only two grass pitches in the south inner city. The newly formed juvenile rugby team in Marlborough Lane, the first for many years in the inner city, has to travel to the Phoenix Park to train or to play on grass. That is a massive indictment on the system and on those who have the coffers to provide facilities for people in need, particularly in the more deprived areas. It is an awful indictment that an area such as Clondalkin with a population of 80,000 has no facilities for young people. A container is the only facility where the kids can tog out and play.
The Minister referred to the lack of participation in sport by young people and the problems to which it leads, ranging from poor health to anti-social behaviour. We have to ask why there is anti-social behaviour. When there are no facilities for young people and the State does not provide them, then the State is contributing to the problem of anti-social behaviour. If the facilities were in place and there was a mechanism to introduce children to sport at a young age it would be one of the greatest defences against problems in Dublin or anywhere in the country. I know that from personal experience.
Surely the solution is greater support for local sports groups, particularly in areas such as the one I have described, rather than expect that children will be inspired, simply by wishing to emulate people they may see performing at international level or in prestigious national events. Those men and women would not be capable of participating at such levels were it not for the humble local clubs where they began. We have to recognise that people who give voluntarily of their time provide one of the greatest services to the State.
The sports capital scheme is an excellent idea through which a significant amount of money has been distributed. I suggest it be revised to allow for grants for clubs to acquire property. The emphasis on all sports investment needs to be at local level rather than at prestige national arenas. That is not to say that such projects ought not to be proceeded with and there is a better balance being struck in regard to sports investment than in the past.
I have concerns about the motives behind the Abbotstown project and the manner in which the whole issue of the main national stadium is being dealt with. There is a perception that this Bill is being introduced to revive a proposal initially overruled by the Minister’s partners in Cabinet. The likely difficulties surrounding planning issues for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road may make the development of a stadium at Abbotstown a necessity, or, at least, that may be how it will be explained.
In reply to a question in the House last month the Minister said there was no plan B if the Lansdowne project runs into difficulties and the proposed new stadium does not go ahead. That is a failure in responsibility, because it is a possibility. Surely there is a need for a plan B as the GAA cannot be expected to come to the aid of the IRFU or the FAI for ever more. If there is a plan B and if this Bill is laying the ground for such a plan, by facilitating the development of what might become the much talked about national stadium, the Minister ought to state that plainly and clearly.
Mr. Healy: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Sports Campus Development Authority Bill 2006 which was published in February. It provides for the establishment, on a statutory basis, of the National Sports Campus Development Authority, and succeeds Campus and Stadium Ireland Development Limited. It will oversee the planning and development of a sports campus at Abbotstown.
The Bill sets out the functions of the authority which shall be to develop and manage a sports campus on the site and to encourage and promote its use by professional amateur sports people and members of the public alike. Its provides for the site owned by the Minister for Agriculture and Food to be conveyed to the authority, if necessary, and if necessary also for the authority to develop the land pending the conveyance of the site from the Minister.
I welcome the Bill and what it is trying to do. Everybody involved in political and community life would welcome it. It promotes sports and seeks to provide proper facilities for sport at national level. We hear a good deal nowadays about infrastructure, roads, railways, broadband and bridges and how necessary they are. The most important infrastructure is human beings. It is important that resources are put into services for people, to ensure they are properly educated, housed, have a proper health service and access to sporting facilities and sports generally. If people are active in the sports, whether Gaelic football, hurling, soccer or rugby, it diminishes the likelihood of difficulties arising in the area of anti-social behaviour. Any resources that can be put into developing services for human beings are welcome. I welcome the Bill from that point of view.
I hope the emphasis on sport and its development will start the fight against obesity which is prevalent in young people. Unfortunately many young people choose to use Playstation or a television or video screen rather than engage in active sport.
When the Abbotstown facility is developed, access should be available to everybody and not just elite sportsmen and women. The facility must be open to all and they must be welcomed into it, irrespective of their level of competence in a particular sport and there must be provision for the disabled. In the past, the disabled have not been provided with access to such facilities. I know of a number of cases where access was not provided to newly completed or renovated swimming pools. Some groups in our communities have been excluded from what are considered normal activities for the community. I hope the members of those groups will have access to the Abbotstown facility.
The Abbotstown facility should be run on a value for money basis, but not on a for-profit basis. It should work to break even and should subsidise full access for the elderly, the disabled or those who have been socially excluded. The emphasis should not be on making money, or on breaking even.
I compliment and thank the huge numbers of people regularly involved in voluntary work in sport throughout the country. It has become more difficult to be a volunteer in this era because of work and family commitments, but many people still give of their time to their local community and sports clubs. I am sure the significant work done by the large numbers of people involved in my area is reflected throughout the country. They are involved in running local soccer, GAA, rugby, tennis and swimming clubs etc. without financial or other reward apart from that of making their talents available to their local communities.
Many Deputies from both sides of the House have repeatedly asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to remove the cap from the social and community employment schemes. We have been calling for the removal of this cap since the Tánaiste was the relevant Minister. The cap has a significant effect on the running of sports clubs. I mentioned already the voluntary work done by most of the people involved in local clubs, but the support of community and social employment schemes is also an important element for these clubs. Many of these schemes are under serious pressure because they are not getting sufficient numbers of applicants because of the capping regulations.
I urge the Minister to reconsider and remove the cap. If it is not removed many of the schemes will finish. Some have already ended while others have been amalgamated. Prior to Christmas, 50 places were lost on such schemes in my constituency. I have been told that unless capping is removed by the end of this year, there will be significant vacancies that will lead to the closure of many of the schemes.
It is important to take the right approach with regard to the provision of sports facilities in schools and to deal with this issue urgently. Many of our schools have no sports facilities. A recent survey showed that only 23% of primary schools have sports halls, many of which are small, cramped and not really suitable for the purpose. The Minister for Education and Science must take a serious interest in this area. It appears that the Department has decided that the provision of sports halls will no longer be part of new secondary school developments. Scoil Ruane in Killenaule, County Tipperary, just on the border of my constituency, has been looking for a sports hall for several years, but has just been told that it is no longer the policy of the Department to provide these halls. This is a detrimental step and should be reversed. Sports in schools should be supported by the Department.
While I support the development of the sports campus at Abbotstown, I hope it will not interfere with the development and funding of sports facilities at local level. I would like to see a bottom-up approach. Local sports halls and facilities should be provided in all areas. Local clubs, which operate in most cases on a voluntary basis, must be supported and their funding should not be diminished as a result of the funding of the Abbotstown development.
The human infrastructure is vitally important for the future of sport. I support and welcome the Bill. I hope the development of the Abbotstown sports campus will not diminish the funding or support for local initiatives for which I urge the Minister to provide additional funding.
Mr. McHugh: Sport is our great national pastime and involvement in it provides a sense of well-being and an emotional outlet for people of all ages. It builds character. Active participation in competitive or recreational sport makes a major contribution to the physical and mental well-being of people and the nation. Success at national and international level in competitions creates a sense of pride and increases morale. Involvement in sport creates a sense of unity and identity for communities, towns and villages in every area of the country. The achievement of our top competitors and the realisation of the hard work, commitment and dedication involved in achieving success spurs us all to greater effort and raises our spirits. Young people in particular need role models and heroes who will inspire and encourage them to higher achievements.
Much progress has been made in bringing our sporting facilities into line with the best international standards and it is only fair to recognise the progress that has been made and acknowledge the funding provided for many facilities. There are many blackspots, however, including in my constituency. I refer to one of those blackspots, namely, Tuam stadium in County Galway. I have raised this issue with the Minister on several occasions but unfortunately he has not responded in the appropriate manner by allocating a decent sum of money to enable the refurbishment of the stadium and the building of a stand, modern dressing rooms and ancillary facilities. A paltry sum was allocated by the Minister some time ago but in the context of the amount required, the allocation was peanuts. I ask the Minister to take this project seriously and allocate a realistic sum of money to a project which he has effectively ignored over the past nine years.
In considering the Tuam stadium project, will the Minister take into account the fact that north Galway is the home of Galway football and Tuam stadium the stage on which the footballing prowess of that region was showcased? Unfortunately, because of the neglect of this stadium, teams involved at top level must now travel from the Roscommon border to Galway city to take part in top level matches. Will the Minister also take into account the fact that Tuam has been designated as a hub town, one of the characteristics of which is that it would have top class sporting facilities? Tuam does not have those facilities. I remind the Minister also that Tuam has RAPID designation and, as such, is entitled to special funding and treatment from Government. This debate gives me the opportunity to put forward the case for Tuam stadium and I do so on the basis that sporting facilities should be provided throughout the country to ensure an equal spread of facilities.
On the Abbotstown sports campus, one must ask if the location for such a facility is the correct one. It galls me that everything of substance proposed by this Government must be located on the east coast. I question the location as a Deputy from the west. My constituents, or people from the larger area of Connacht, will have major difficulty in accessing this facility. For example, for young people or students who wish to pursue a career in sport and, as a stepping stone, want to use this centre, it will be next to impossible to access the facility, not least because of the inadequate and often absent infrastructure such as roads and rail. Also, the distance to be travelled will make it impossible.
I welcome the fact that a centre of excellence is to be provided but I question the location. In providing such a facility, which will be a once-off, there is an onus on the Government to get it right and ensure there are no cock-ups or questions to be answered during the construction of the project or after it. On this occasion the Government should ensure that there is no place in this project for shelf companies or the like. In that regard, I am reassured by the fact that the shadow of Con Haugh hangs over this project. He has a long record of faithful service, for which I thank him.
Phase 1 of the plan for this development will provide a national field sports training centre catering for Gaelic games, rugby, soccer and hockey. A national indoor training centre will provide top class training facilities for more than 30 governing bodies of sport such as basketball, badminton, bowling, boxing, judo etc. It will provide accommodation for sportsmen and women, sports science and medical facilities and all-weather synthetic pitches for community use.
The community use aspect is interesting and I want to refer to a national community organisation, that is, the Community Games organisation. That organisation does not have a permanent home. I ask that it be accommodated in this development. It does good work throughout the country and that should be recognised. The greatest means of recognition of the Community Games organisation is to give it a home. The Minister now has a golden opportunity. The Community Games organisation caters for all youth and many activities and if it is not robustly supported by Government, our youth will be the poorer.
Ms Harkin: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the National Sports Campus Development Authority Bill 2006. The Bill proposes the creation of the national sports campus development authority to oversee the planning and development of a campus of sports facilities at Abbotstown, County Dublin. This saga has a chequered history but it is recognised that a national sports campus is a positive move. Nationally, we will all benefit from that level of expertise. According to the legislation, it will be used by professional and amateur sports people and members of the public. Furthermore, according to the legislation, the authority may engage with a body involved with the promotion of sport at a national level. That is the issue on which I want to concentrate, perhaps more on a regional level.
While I am happy to support a national centre, I am also very concerned about what happens at regional level. We also need sporting facilities in the regions and we need that balance. For many years I have campaigned and asked for balanced regional development — a balance of economic development between the regions. Just as important for people’s quality of life is a balance between sporting and recreational facilities. We in the regions are taxpayers too and deserve equal treatment. The reason for my ongoing concern is that the regional sports measure under the regional operational programme has not yet been activated.
We are five and six months into the national development plan. It finishes at the end of 2006 and will we ever see the start of this programme? Over the past four years, I have written to the Minister on a number of occasions. I have his reply, which I will quote shortly, to my questions about this programme but it is worth noting first what is said about this programme in the NDP:
Those are the Government’s own words. It states that public sector involvement will be necessary to assist in the provision of those facilities. It states also that funding under this measure will be available to assist local authorities in the provision of multi-purpose sport and recreation facilities, especially in areas which lack them, and upgrade existing facilities.
What has happened since? I will quote from the Minister’s reply to a parliamentary question I tabled on 15 November 2005. Before tabling this question, I wrote to the Minister on a number of occasions about activating this sub-measure and tabled various questions. This is the most recent reply I received from him. I have checked with the Border, Midland and Western Authority and I understand, based on information received from the authority, that this measure has not yet been activated. In my question to the Minister on 15 November 2005, I asked whether the regional sports measure under the regional OP had been activated, whether funding had been drawn down and, if not, when he proposed to fund this measure in view of the fact that this current regional OP will finish at the end of 2006. According to the Minister’s reply:
The Minister’s reply referred to the national spatial strategy, but this strategy was published in 2002. If we examine the strategy — I refer in particular to my region — we can see that Sligo was designated as a gateway under the strategy and comes under the heading of larger urban areas. According to the strategy:
The strategy lists some examples of this at the gateway level, one of which involves “building on the progress made to date in enhancing the physical fabric and improving cultural and leisure amenities in Sligo and Dundalk”. We awaited the activation of this measure but nothing has happened since the strategy was published in 2002.
Sligo Regional Sports Centre requires substantial investment and support to help it meet the needs of a gateway city, a designation given to Sligo by the Government. It was announced recently that the public swimming pool at Summerhill College in Sligo will close in June 2006. This swimming pool is a private facility but has been available to the people of Sligo town and the rest of the county and surrounding counties for over 30 years. This facility has been available to people thanks to the diocese of Elphin and the college itself long before there was any public indoor facility in Sligo town. The children of Sligo have learned to swim and life save in Summerhill College’s pool, which has been an extremely important part of the fabric of life in Sligo and surrounding counties.
However, for a number of reasons, among them health and safety issues, the pool is to close. What will happen to the children who are currently learning to swim in the pool and children who could swim there in the future if it remained open? Comparable facilities are not available in Sligo. The pool in Sligo Regional Sports Centre is unable to cater for the numbers of people wishing to use it. The pools in both the centre and Summerhill College are full. People from Leitrim, particularly north Leitrim, and all over Sligo come to swim in the pool in Summerhill College. This facility will close at the end of June, yet a measure which was supposed to begin at the beginning of the national development plan in 2000 or, at least, with the publication of the national spatial strategy in 2002 has not been activated and no funding has been drawn down. This funding is available to local authorities and voluntary groups.
Will this money be made available? At the end of the Minister’s reply to my question on 15 November 2005, he stated that substantial funding for sports facilities would be sought by his Department in the context of the 2006-10 sports capital envelope. Can we expect that this envelope will contain funding for a new pool in Sligo? As in many cases, people in the regions often have to wait at the end of the queue. We know all about the underspend and the national development plan as it stands. In that context, I echo the comments of Deputy McHugh about access for people from the region.
I have made my case to the Minister, who I hope is listening. I hope something will happen on foot of this because the end of the current national development plan is close. A number of speakers referred to the fact that all sporting facilities will be accessible to people with disabilities, a very important measure which is undoubtedly a necessity. People in the regions pay the same taxes as everybody else. I ask the Minister to look at matters from a regional perspective and activate the regional sports measure so that programmes like the swimming pool in Sligo or the expansion of Sligo Regional Sports Centre can take place within the lifetime of this national development plan.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: I recently read an interesting argument from a UK commentator which related to the UK Government but which also applies to the Irish Government and my thoughts on this Bill. According to the commentator, people can sometimes understand, accept or cope with a government whose motives, honesty or integrity they suspect but will not tolerate a government whose competence they doubt. Incompetence is the greatest electoral or political sin a government can commit.
This is possibly the reason so much attention has been paid to the PPARS system and electronic voting and the reason the Government is so frustrated by this attention. These are clear examples of incompetence. One of the clearest examples of Government incompetence is the concept of locating the national sports campus in Abbotstown. This incompetence goes right to the top because it was clear from the beginning that it was the Taoiseach who managed and led this project, thereby testing his competence. Whether one examines the issue in terms of the management structure, the building arrangements, the contracting arrangements for the company, the original management system and the management system put in place for the particular swimming pool, it speaks of incompetence.
The greatest example of incompetence in respect of this project, which led me to question the competence of the Taoiseach, was his insistence that we put a stadium on the edge of the city. From my perspective as——
Mr. Eamon Ryan: It is on the edge of the city in the sense that it is on the outside of the M50. The Minister of State and I will disagree about this and about how our city develops. If I represented that area, I would possibly welcome a facility in it. However, this stadium was to be a national stadium and there is a world of difference between a national stadium in a city centre location and one in an out of town location. I favour the concept of placing a national stadium in a city centre location where tens of thousands of people can walk to it, as they walk to Croke Park and Lansdowne Road. This approach to a stadium is the correct one in terms of how it affects the city and the game itself. Walking down O’Connell Street during an all-Ireland final and seeing Clare and Cork supporters filling the street wall to wall is one of the proudest and most exciting and invigorating occasions in this country. Seeing Munster and Leinster rugby fans in the vicinity of Lansdowne Road is similarly exciting. The meeting of tens of thousands of fans on the streets and in the pubs before and after the game is as much the essence of the event for me as the game itself. One cannot get this in a location on the edge of the motorway system. As much as I would like to make it out from my constituency to the proposed stadium at Adamstown, I would find it easier to go to Sligo via public transport.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: The car-based transport system solution is not working. It is a fundamental flaw in the Government’s planning approach, which this project epitomises more than anything else. The Minister of State may say that we will have a metro system to serve the stadium but I have never believed the Government concerning its transport plans in that regard. The metro project is years behind schedule and the Government has shown no urgency in providing a connection. It was the first link to go. While the location may be very suitable for the Minister of State’s constituents, for mine it would prove inaccessible. Does the Minister of State want to intervene?
Mr. Eamon Ryan: That the Taoiseach needed to be dragged kicking and screaming is exactly my point. He never accepted that conclusion and I question his competence and management of this project, which was epitomised by a mistake he refused to recognise. I do not know for how many years he has been a Minister or Taoiseach — it must be the guts of 20 to 25 years — but perhaps the concept of walking to an event is alien to him or far removed from his experience. As he arrives at everything with a star in front of his bonnet, it does not matter to him whether the star leads him west to Abbotstown or takes him on the short run from St. Luke’s to Croke Park. However, if I want to bring my sons to a game, I must walk or go by bus. This is a fundamental issue that changes the nature of the city.
I have never had an opportunity to set out my views on that decision or the Taoiseach’s performance but will do so now. It was the greatest example of incompetence in planning and epitomised to a certain extent the lack of planning and concern within our city in respect of the creation of what is known as the doughnut city, whereby we are starting to put everything around the M50. Ikea will go to the north slip road of Ballymun, we were going to put our national sports campus out there and, this morning, I read that the Minister for Transport is considering putting a centralised bus service point on the edge of the city.
When I examine these series of decisions in pure planning terms, I see that an edged city — turning Dublin into the equivalent of Houston, Dallas or another American car-based transport system city — does not work. More than anything else, it impinges on the social capital that the Taoiseach says is his mantra, and Mr. Robert Putnam’s belief that we must build up strong communities. We must do this by proper transport planning first and foremost. On the one hand, the Taoiseach espouses this concept and, on the other, he insists that developments such as sports stadiums are located out of town rather than in the city centre. Happily, the Government has finally decided to locate the stadium in the city centre.
Beyond the stadium, the development of the sports campus is a slightly different matter. If we are examining the development of an area where professional athletes go for a period of time to train and hone their skills, planning with a particular civic sense is less important. As a south side resident of the city and as much as I would love to bring my children to the aquatic centre, I have not done so because there are no proper public transport connections in my constituency. If this authority must set its agenda when it is established and forgetting about Deputy Harkin or representatives from other parts of the country who may need to drive to these facilities, what public transport links would it provide for my children on the south side of the city? We are not far away from the facilities, only ten or 20 miles away, but going by car via the M50 would take hours. It is an unpredictable voyage.
The first task of any national sports campus authority is to determine how it will become a national and city one in terms of ready access. Currently, that access is not available to me. If the Government and sports authorities believe that this centre on the M50 is the place to put professional elite training facilities that can also be used by the public, so be it. I have a lesser problem with that than I do with the concept of a civic centre, the national stadium, being out there.
Something on which the Minister of State with special responsibility for children might have a view is that the large expenditure on this project contrasts with my experience of large numbers of children growing up in Dublin and other parts of the country without the simple facilities to play games in primary schools. I can only speak about primary schools as I have more direct experience of them, but I am sure the same is also true of a number of secondary schools. Children in my constituency do not have basic facilities to play a game of football in their schools or the curricula set out to rate sport where it should be, that is, a central tenet in the development of a child or young man or woman.
While our country has advanced and modernised in many different ways, I see no real change in modern thinking or an emphasis placed on this central aspect of our development as people, that is, our ability to partake in and express ourselves through sporting activities. The absence of participation at the youngest level organised by the State rather than in a private manner is remarkable. The considerable development of facilities on a professional or elite basis should always come second to the promotion of the involvement of all children, men and women. I contend that in a sense, this is the test of our success as a society, not how many Olympic medals we garner or professional athletes we have working at a particular level.
I would take my sporting cue from Con Houlihan, a sports journalist and writer who I have admired for many years. As a Kerryman, Deputy Deenihan may know him better than I, but in reading his writing, what was remarkably strong was the aspect of always returning to the local level, the battle between the local village or parish team against a neighbouring parish team, which epitomised all the great elements of sport. It did not need to be a professional, elite and segregated specialist activity. Con Houlihan’s vision of what sport represents is the glory of the locality. If we move down the road of sport representing the elite and highly honed who do not have that connection to the local community or sense of place, it will not be as rich an experience.
In principle, I do not oppose the development of such a campus, which would promote excellence, but believe that it must be balanced by proper investment in the local, the primary school, the parish hall and the local pitch on behalf of the State. Unfortunately, like many I question the competence of this Government to get this matter right.
Mr. Connolly: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this issue. I also welcome the notion of the development of a national sports stadium. It would be quite difficult to oppose such a development because it creates an emphasis on sport, which is one of the best gifts that could be given to or encouraged in a community. We regularly discuss the abuse of drugs and alcohol, but sport is something that will take people off the streets.
At national level, the stadium will do its bit. If we have quality athletes, we should want quality facilities in which to train them. When we examine this issue, we probably consider our own areas and what should be given to them to help. Given how facilities were provided when I played football etc., the GAA has done much on a county by county basis. As for any of the clubs in counties Cavan and Monaghan, one facility is better than the next. The GAA provides a fantastic service to rural Ireland. While a number of rugby and soccer clubs are also to be commended, the GAA is present in every parish. People put in a great deal of voluntary effort and are aware that in so doing, they support and benefit the community in which they live.
Some years ago, football facilities were fairly poor. When playing a match or training, one might be obliged to tog out in a shed, a car or sometimes on the side of the pitch and to get on with business afterwards. Thankfully, this has changed because younger people have different expectation levels and people are treated better now than in the past.
While I welcome the national aspect of this Bill, it provides Members with an opportunity to consider local provision. I intend to use today’s debate to raise the issue of St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones. Traditionally, the GAA Ulster final has been played there for just over 40 years and has been the lifeblood of economic activity in the town. Clones is a Border town which was effectively cut off during the Troubles. While it suffered much economic hardship at the time, it was able to look forward to occasional events because of the development of the pitch. This was initiated in previous years by the Clones community with the assistance of the GAA’s Ulster Council. The pitch has been developed into one of the country’s finest.
However, GAA followings in Ulster are now so great that it is unable to host all the local Ulster matches. Recently, it was necessary to move an Ulster final from St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones, to Croke Park. Ultimately, the people who took that decision were proved correct, as the crowds travelling from Ulster were so great that it was impossible to get tickets for the match in Croke Park. This signifies that the demand for football, and hence for stadiums, is especially high in the area which I represent.
Clones is unique in that it has top quality grounds as well as a good tradition of being capable of hosting Ulster finals. Moreover, the emphasis no longer merely on Ulster finals, as a considerably greater number of championship games are now played on foot of the introduction of the GAA’s back door system. This leads to much championship activity for longer periods in the summer, which brings benefits to both the players who train throughout the winter and to their supporters who see more of their team. The Government should consider the application which seeks national sports capital funding to extend the pitch in Clones.
A further advantage is that many people who attend matches in Clones come from Northern Ireland, which involves taking money into our economy. Sterling is taken in when such people come, spend and stay. Moreover, surrounding towns such as Monaghan town, Ballybay and Castleblayney all receive some spin-off benefits. Hence, this proposal merits serious consideration.
In addition, if the Government were seen to pump money into Clones, the Ulster Council might also dig into its coffers or make a decision to the effect that Clones would become a headquarters site. However, if this opportunity is lost, it is possible that Casement Park, Belfast, might be developed as a headquarters site. At present, it does not have the same level of access as does Clones because, since the advent of the peace process, an additional five roads from Northern Ireland have been opened. Hence, access to Clones is much better and a number of bypasses are due to open in the region. The alternative is that this opportunity could be lost to Belfast and money would leave our economy rather than entering it. If the Government decided to spend the money, the economy would benefit in the long term from the number of people who would travel south to Clones to attend Gaelic football matches. Clones suffered economically and this would be a great opportunity for both the town itself and the country.
Normally, when one discusses football, there can be bitterness between different counties and people of one county might not support those of another. However, in this case, as far as my constituency is concerned, I have the great pleasure of being able to state that my Oireachtas colleagues from Cavan support the concept of developing St. Tiernach’s, which I welcome. As one should pitch for one’s own county, their willingness to support the proposal is a very magnanimous gesture and this degree of unity should be taken into consideration.
Mr. Connolly: That is also a generous gesture and I hope it continues. The proposals envisage crowds of 30,000 people coming to a town which has a good history of being capable of hosting events. This small town and county also have a history of producing world champions. I refer to Barry McGuigan, who brought great pride to the nation. Moreover, the boxer, Kevin McBride, also brings great pride to us. In addition, Ciaran Murray is physiotherapist to the Irish soccer team. There are many good people in Clones.
While this would cost approximately €23 million, it would be money well spent, as it would be if such a facility existed in each province. While the notion of a national campus is worthwhile, Members should consider the regions in the context of decentralisation. People follow facilities. When someone considers a move to the west, the presence of a good swimming pool, football facilities, rugby, golf or whatever can be used a means of attracting him or her. Some Departments have encountered difficulties when people are asked to relocate to different towns. The first thing such people do is examine the services of the town in question. They consider the infrastructure and what it has to offer in terms of schools, colleges and medical facilities.
The better the amenities that are piled into Dublin, the more difficult it is for people to leave them. Hence, the regions should not be forgotten. Facilities should be provided in the regions to give people a reason to decentralise. If people affected by decentralisation knew that such facilities were to be provided in the regions, it would sweeten the pill for many of them. People have families in Dublin and are tied to life in the city in different ways. They must be given a carrot rather than a stick.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. B. Lenihan): I will reply on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. While the Minister cannot be present, he wishes to thank Deputies on both sides of the House for their constructive insights into and measured responses to this Bill and the wider aspects of sport as they affect us all as individuals, a community and a nation.
On my behalf, I greatly welcome the introduction of this Bill because I represent the area in which the national sports campus will be established. The Bill will establish the new statutory authority which will be charged with making a reality of the vision of that sports campus at Abbotstown. I have been an ardent and outspoken supporter of the concept of the sports campus since it was first mooted by the Taoiseach. I congratulate my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, for introducing this important legislation.
Deputy Eamon Ryan’s contribution implied that somehow, the sports campus will be developed on the edge of the city. Speaking as a Deputy for the area concerned, there is a growing need and demand in the greater Blanchardstown area and in the Fingal area in general. It is not widely known that the administrative area of Fingal covers an area of approximately 173 square miles. It has a population of almost 210,000 souls, which is projected to grow to 260,000 by 2010. Within a decade, more people will live in the area covered by Fingal County Council, which is on the north side of Dublin, than within Dublin City Council’s functional area on the north side of the city. Hence, it is very misleading for Deputy Eamon Ryan to describe this area as being in some way part of the edge of the city in terms of the development taking place in Ireland at present. I understand the point he made about the M50 motorway. As I am sure many Members of the House commute on the motorway from time to time, they will be aware of the huge spread of development that has taken place to the west of the motorway. It is no longer an orbital hub, which is one of the difficulties.
The decision to proceed with the sports campus is a commitment by the Government to invest in an area which is the most rapidly growing area, not just in Ireland but in Western Europe, and to provide badly needed facilities to support the huge local community that is emerging in the region. There is an emphasis in the plans for Abbotstown on providing sports facilities for elite sportsmen and women. There is also a commitment to provide community facilities. This is important because Abbotstown cannot just be about elite athletes. That point was made by many Deputies in the debate. The development at Abbotstown will complement the work being done by the local sports partnership in the local community. The development control plan prepared for the site includes 16 seven-a-side pitches. It is a welcome development given the heavy demand for that type of facility. There are also plans to develop a large portion of the site as a woodland park and to provide a hospice campus. I will not go into the details of a hospice facility because the Minister outlined it and Deputies referred to it.
I will deal with certain matters raised in the debate. Several speakers identified the importance of engaging the interest of young people in sport, and the importance of schools and local communities in that regard. It is important to note that almost €2 billion has been invested from 1998 to 2004 to provide modern facilities, including those for physical education in schools, with a further €3 billion due to be invested over the five years to 2010. In the period 2003-2005, under the Department of Education and Science’s capital programme, 202 primary or post-primary schools projects have been funded which include the provision of general purpose rooms for physical activity or PE hall provision. Virtually all schools have at least one element of physical education facilities at post-primary level, whether PE halls, general-purpose rooms, outdoor hard play areas such as basketball and tennis courts and playing fields. Within the design brief for building projects at schools, improvements to the existing facilities are generally considered.
Responsibility for the provision of facilities at the schools rests with the Department of Education and Science but applications from schools and colleges can be considered under the sports capital programme in circumstances where these facilities are made available to the wider community. The issue of encouraging schools to come together with local communities and sports clubs to develop sports facilities is being examined in the context of the sports facilities strategy of the Department. Clearly, sports facilities used during the day by schools and by the wider communities in the evening, represents the best value for money. This is not to say there are not issues which must be addressed around staffing, security, insurance and running costs. However, it is heartening to note that there already exists a close relationship between many schools and local sports clubs. The 2005 ESRI report on the participation of young people and children in sport reported that 79% of post-primary schools and 90% of primary schools acknowledged some degree of help with facilities provided by local sports clubs.
Two programmes are specifically operated by the Irish Sports Council which aim to encourage young people into sports participation. The sport for young people grant scheme is administered through the VECs to promote sporting opportunities for young people, especially for those in areas of social disadvantage. That grant scheme is open to VECs that do not have local sports partnerships in their areas. The Buntús programme is being rolled out to primary schools by the sports council through the local sports partnership network. The programme aims to support the primary PE curriculum by providing equipment, resource cards and training to teachers to enable teachers and coaches to introduce sport to children in a safe and fun way.
The Government recently undertook an initiative to encourage greater participation by women in sport. In the 2005 Estimates, the Government allocated €750,000 to the Irish Sports Council to promote this form of participation. Local sports partnerships were also given funding for locally-based projects aimed at specific target groups. The projects selected for funding were innovative and designed to bring girls and women into sport and are aimed at retaining and re-engaging female participants in a diverse range of sporting activities. The Government recognises the importance of this issue and has taken specific action by increasing the level of funding in 2006 to more than €2.25 million.
A number of Deputies referred to the valuable contribution the Community Games make to raise the level of participation in competitive sports. Others outlined the important role this organisation plays in our society. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism and I agree fully with this sentiment. The Minister will continue to provide both financial and moral support to those staging the Community Games. Exchequer funding is provided through the sports council to recognised national governing bodies of sport that are involved with the National Community Games structure. In 2006, the National Community Games received a grant from the sports council of €250,000, which represents the largest amount of grant-aid given to the National Community Games by the council so far. This is in recognition of the work done to streamline and modernise the organisation, including the reduction of members on its executive.
The National Community Games recently announced its new sponsorship arrangement with the Health Service Executive, which is to be welcomed as a very appropriate partnership. This increased funding will alleviate financial concerns for the future of the games and give added recognition to the work of its many dedicated volunteers. The issue of a suitable venue for the National Community Games to hold its national finals was raised during this debate. The Mosney holiday centre hosted the Games for many years. The Refugee Integration Agency, which now has a contract with Mosney Holding Limited for parts of the centre, has confirmed that the venue will continue to be available until at least 2009.
During the course of the debate on the Bill, Deputy Gregory was critical of the fact that the Government provided a high level of support for horse and greyhound racing. The Minister is anxious to point out to Deputy Gregory that two of the most successful sports in Ireland in recent days have been those of horse and greyhound racing. Government support for both industries is provided under the fund as approved by the Oireachtas. The fund receives a guaranteed level of finance based on the excise duty on off-course betting. This money, in so far as it is invested in capital projects, has led to undeniable benefits for both sectors and it has marked a revival of interest in both sports, to the benefit of the whole economy. It has not only helped towards providing some top class racing venues and facilities, but it has underpinned significant employment in both industries and the prize money. The prize money it has facilitated has been an important boost for both horse and greyhound breeding. The fund was extended by the Government in 2004 up to and including 2008, with the limit of the fund being increased to €550 million. I recall that there was support right across the House for this initiative at the time. A total of €70 million has been provided for the fund in 2006.
I would direct any doubters to the 2004 report on the economic value of the horseracing and bloodstock breeding industry compiled by Indecon International Economic Consultants. This confirmed that horseracing and thoroughbred breeding are significant net contributors to the economy. They have an important role in generating employment, particularly in the tourism and rural sectors. The report indicated that the thoroughbred breeding industry makes a gross contribution to the Irish economy of €330 million per annum and that it pays tax in the region of €37.5 million per annum. The report showed that Ireland is now the largest producer of thoroughbreds in Europe, accounting for 42% of total output. It is the third largest producer world-wide, behind only the United States and Australia and the employment figures of 16,500 are shown to be generated from the racing, breeding and associated industries. This is an important niche that has been established and Deputies should be informed about it.
On the National Aquatic Centre to which a number of Deputies referred, the House will be aware that matters relating to the lease have been before the High Court recently. Dublin Waterworld Limited operates the centre under a 30-year lease from CSID, the landlords of the centre. CSID took legal proceedings against the company for forfeiture of the lease for failure to comply with obligations under that lease, which included failure to pay rent, failure to pay insurance, failure to provide audited accounts, to name just some of the breaches. Relief was sought against the forfeiture by the defendant. When the proceedings commenced, it emerged that the defendant had assigned its right to take the lease of the centre to a businessman, Mr. Pat Mulcair, even though such a transfer of ownership should only have taken place with the consent of the landlord. In his judgment on 21 March, Mr. Justice Gilligan in the High Court found in favour of the landlord on all counts. He found that the company had wilfully declined to honour its obligations pursuant to the lease. Accordingly, he declined to grant relief against forfeiture. Arising from this judgment, a court order for possession of the aquatic centre was made on 29 March, which would have had effect from 28 April. Plans were drawn up for the ongoing operation of the centre in the event that the operators removed themselves from it. However, on 13 April the defendants lodged a notice of appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgment and the order, as defendants are entitled to do. The matter came before the High Court on 25 April and the judge granted a stay of 14 days on the execution of the forfeiture order. The House will appreciate that for the present there are constraints in what can be said as the judicial process has not been completed.
I recommend that Deputy Burton read the full judgment of Justice Gilligan after which she will be in possession of the facts and perhaps will stop dealing in speculation and conjecture about the matter. The Deputy appears to have a vendetta against the National Aquatic Centre and never misses an opportunity to run with misinformation and spin put into the public arena by people with unfriendly intentions towards the centre. The centre is a tremendous facility, not alone for west Dublin but for our capital city and for those who commute into Dublin on the western side of what another member of the potential rainbow coalition described as an edge on the city. It is very much at the centre of our country and is a great facility.
With regard to specific issues relating to the centre raised by Deputy Deenihan, although these issues have been dealt with in parliamentary questions on a number of occasions recently, the Minister believes it is appropriate to take the opportunity once more to clarify the situation for the House. It never ceases to surprise the Minister that misinformation will come back into the public arena again and again while the plain facts are conveniently overlooked because they do not make for dramatic headlines. The Minister therefore wants me to read into the record of this House the facts of what happened at the National Aquatic Centre.
We had the unfortunate event of damage to the roof caused by very severe weather conditions on 1 January 2005. I am one of the Members of the House who can give personal testimony to those severe weather conditions. The repair work on the centre was completed on 20 May 2005 under the supervision of consulting and structural engineers, Kavanagh Mansfield and Partners. All necessary repair works were fully carried out and the centre was reopened to the public on the day work was completed. When the work was completed, the consultants provided confirmation that all work was completed to a satisfactory standard. As has been said before in the House, the costs associated with the repair work are a matter between the construction company, its sub-contractors and their insurance companies.
During last year, there were media reports about alleged leaks, cracks and subsidence at the National Aquatic Centre. To get to the bottom of the matter, Campus Stadium Ireland arranged for the alleged defects to be examined. In July, a joint inspection by experts was completed at the National Aquatic Centre. The inspection was led by Rohcon, the NAC construction company accompanied by S&P Architects, URS Structural Engineers, and Euro Pools, specialist subcontractors. Technical representatives of Campus Stadium Ireland, Davis Langdon PKS, managers of the project, and Kavanagh Mansfield structural engineers, were also involved. The inspection team found there was no evidence of any structural defects or of any water leaking into the plant room despite what had been alleged in the media. Some leakage through pipe joints and valves was found, which was attributed to operational and not structural origins. It is very likely that this is a maintenance issue. A test was carried out which confirmed there were no leaks from the swimming pools. URS Structural Engineers confirmed that the concrete works were designed and constructed to meet the British standard 8007. They confirmed that any cracks that existed were usual and acceptable in a building that was still settling. They were not leaking, they were not of a structural nature and they were entirely normal for a building of this type.
It is disappointing that people will still run with the bad story despite tangible evidence to the contrary. My colleague, the Minister, and I agree with what Deputy Deenihan says about the image of the National Aquatic Centre being tarnished and it is unfortunate that some people have sought to make political capital from that. Neither the Minister nor I am suggesting Deputy Deenihan is guilty of that and I know he is supportive in trying to protect the reputation of a facility that is world class and of great benefit to our elite swimmers and the local community.
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