Wednesday, 3 November 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Arts, sport and Tourism (Mr. O’Donoghue): I welcome the opportunity of discussing the very important matter of sports facilities. All of us here today have experienced an incredible sense of pride and achievement at Ireland’s many international successes in various sporting activities. Visitors to this country often remark on the intense and widespread interest in sporting events at international, national and local level, not least in our Gaelic games. What a wonderful sense of occasion it was to witness Ireland’s comprehensive win against Australia in the international rules series ten days ago in a packed Croke Park. In the past week there have been magnificent victories by the Connacht, Leinster and Munster rugby teams against teams from Wales, France and England.
When taking office in 1997, the Government recognised the importance of sport and appointed the first Minister with responsibility for sport to the Cabinet. The Government continues to believe in the value of sport and the contribution it can make to our society, for individuals and for communities. The past seven years have seen a dramatic increase in Government funding for Irish sport, from €17 million in 1997 to €113 million in 2004, with a total of over €610 million in Government spending on sport to support the development of a new sporting infrastructure and to support a range of sporting programmes.
The success of any nation in sporting contests can be traced back to the availability of top quality facilities supported by a range of programmes aimed at increasing participation and improving standards of performance. Last January, the Government agreed to provide €191 million towards the cost of a new stadium at Lansdowne Road — that decision gave life to the Lansdowne Road stadium project. Today I can say with confidence that the project is well under way and that the three partners involved have formally committed to the project with the signing of a formal legal agreement in September to bring the plans to conclusion. This agreement provides for the procurement and building of a stadium and the availability of this stadium as a sporting facility, which we expect will be completed by December 2008. A project director, who brings a wealth of experience with him, has been appointed by the IRFU and the FAI and he will oversee the project.
The development of the new Lansdowne Road stadium will involve a 50,000 all-seated stadium which will be built on the axis of the existing stadium. The estimated cost of this project is just under €300 million and approved Government support will provide €191 million over five years. The stadium will meet all the current international standards for rugby and soccer and the pitch area will be of sufficient size to accommodate Gaelic games. It is anticipated that the application for planning permission will be lodged late in 2005 and it is hoped to commence construction of the new stadium in the second half of 2006. Ireland’s international rugby and soccer squads will have a platform on which they can showcase themselves and Ireland to the world and from which they can develop and build on the progress they have already achieved.
The commencement of the work at Lansdowne Road, together with the completion of Croke Park, will at last place Irish field sports on an acceptable footing regarding the standard of sports facilities that are available in other similarly developed economies. Together, these two admirable projects bring stadium facilities in Ireland into the 21st century.
When I announced a few weeks ago that the Government had agreed to provide a further and final grant of €40 million to the GAA over the next two years towards the cost of the redevelopment of Croke Park, this brought the total Exchequer contribution to €110 million towards the €265 million cost of the whole project. At the time of this announcement I paid tribute to the immense contribution to sport which has been made over the years by the organisation and the many men and women who have given of their time and effort to Gaelic games on a voluntary basis. The GAA is largely an amateur organisation and yet has been extremely professional in its approach in taking the lead to develop its sporting infrastructure at all levels, which I have been happy to support.
However, while it is a source of satisfaction to see the redevelopment of two great stadia in Dublin with such historical significance, much remains to be done to bring Ireland’s national sporting infrastructure in line with our European neighbours. It was in this context that the Taoiseach articulated his vision for a campus of sporting excellence to be developed at a 500-acre site in Abbotstown, County Dublin. In January 2004 the Government reaffirmed its commitment to the development of a sports campus at Abbotstown. A phased and prioritised programme to deliver the component elements of the campus is being developed by Campus and Stadium Ireland Development Limited. The campus is capable of accommodating the requirements of sporting organisations for high quality pitches and training and administrative facilities for both amateur and ranking team sports. This should be of benefit not only to major sports organisations but also to some of our smaller sports whose need for modern facilities are important.
The campus will likely also include medical and training support for elite athlete development and, eventually, an indoor sporting arena. It is expected that elements of the development would attract private sector investment. The Department has been working with Campus and Stadium Ireland Development Limited to secure a developmental plan for a campus of sports facilities at Abbotstown. Proposals for the development of a sports campus at Abbotstown have now been received and I intend to consider them in consultation with my Government colleagues.
The first element of the Sports Campus Ireland project was the development of a National Aquatic Centre, which was completed at a cost of €71 million and opened in March 2003. The centre, which is one of the largest indoor water facilities in the world, encompasses a 50 m. swimming pool; a 25 m. warm up pool which is also a diving pool; a major leisure water area for family entertainment; and spectator facilities for national and international competitions. With over 1 million visitors in its first year and the location of many community programmes engaging primary schools, older adults and programmes for the disadvantaged, the National Aquatic Centre has already proven its worth as a valuable community and national recreational facility. However, it is important to note that it also provides state-of-the-art swimming training facilities for Ireland’s elite swimmers and has also been used by the British Olympic diving team in training for the Olympic Games.
In December 2003 the European Short Course Swimming Championships were hosted in Dublin at the National Aquatic Centre where 19 European records were set, putting Dublin and Ireland on the map in terms of hosting international swimming competitions. This followed on from the impressive arena playing host to the largest sporting event of 2003, with the aquatics competitions of the memorable Special Olympics World Summer Games being held there. The first time ever located outside the USA, this competition was an international success made possible by an enormous volunteer effort and a united effort among community groups, sports bodies, private companies and the Government. My Department provided funding and helped towards the cost of improvements to some of the sports facilities used for athletics at Morton Stadium and soccer at the AUL facility in Clonshaugh. The games demonstrated that Ireland is a perfect venue for hosting major sports events. Other events such as the women’s world hockey cup, the European men’s hockey cup and the World Cross Country Championships have enhanced our reputation for hosting such events.
Since 2002, more than €1.2 million has been allocated to the ongoing development of the national hockey stadium at Belfield. This will ensure that we have a national hockey stadium that meets with the highest international standards in time to host the 2005 European Nations Cup. This will be a facility deserving of our national team, which won the four nations Celtic cup in June.
As the House knows, hosting an international sporting event brings many advantages. Not only is it a source of pride to us all but also to-our competitors who can enjoy the support of a home crowd when competing on the world stage. One need only witness Portugal’s best performance in a major championships in Euro 2004 this year or South Korea’s World Cup heroics before a home crowd in 2002. Hosting a major sporting event brings with it media exposure and coverage that cannot ordinarily be bought at any price. Such publicity is invaluable to a country such as Ireland, which depends so much on its tourism product. How many times have we seen the beauty of Ireland displayed the world over through coverage of prestigious golf tournaments held here with the assistance of Fáilte Ireland?
The year 2006 will see the biggest golf tournament of all, namely, the Ryder Cup which will be held at the K Club. It will be televised to approximately 700 million homes in no fewer than 42 countries with 47 stations broadcasting the event, including potential new tourism markets in Eastern Europe and China. In terms of its impact on visitor numbers alone, some 200,000 golf tourists generate revenue of nearly €200 million annually for Irish tourism. The exposure arising from the Ryder Cup match will enhance further Ireland’s standing as a top quality golf destination.
The added benefit of hosting an international sporting event is the effect it can have in engaging ordinary people in the excitement and passion that sport brings out in us all. Witnessing our own teams and athletes competing at the highest level acts as a catalyst for promoting and encouraging people, especially the young, to participate in sport. This is especially true when we can see it first hand. One need only look at the recent successes of Munster and Ulster in the European rugby cup and the excitement generated around Leinster’s home games in Donnybrook and Lansdowne Road, to understand why rugby is enjoying a surge among young people these days who want to play and emulate their heroes.
That is why the Government is committed to continuing with the important work started in 1997 by investing in the development of sports facilities to cater for our top class athletes and also for those inspired by them to take part in sport at whatever level they choose. The national lottery was established to provide funding for, among other things, the development of a sporting infrastructure throughout the country. The development of a quality infrastructure is crucial to the future of sport in Ireland. In this context, the national lottery funded sports capital programme, which is administered by my Department, plays an important role. This programme is the primary vehicle for promoting the development of sports and recreational facilities in Ireland and provides funding in respect of local, regional and national projects.
Through the sports capital programme, we have significantly improved the quantity and quality of sporting facilities throughout the country in recent years. The programme has, since 1997, allocated funding of almost €331 million to more than 4,200 projects to provide badly needed facilities and equipment in virtually every parish, village, town and city. The value of sport and recreation to the nation cannot be over emphasised. It raises our health and fitness levels, provides a means of keeping young people away from crime and drugs, helps to give us a sense of pride in ourselves and enhances our lifestyles.
In keeping with Government policy, the allocations under the sports capital programme reflect special priority for the development of sports and recreational facilities in areas designated as disadvantaged, that is, RAPID, CLÁR and local drugs task force areas. In the four year period to 2004, 1,266 projects located in areas designated as disadvantaged have been allocated funding of more than €121 million under the programme.
In addition to meeting many of the requirements for sport at a local level, my Department’s sports capital programme has also funded numerous world class regional and national sports facilities. These facilities are essential for increasing participation levels in sport, for improving standards of performance at national and international level, while also meeting local needs. These have included major projects such as Croke Park, the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin, the new 50 m. swimming pool at the University of Limerick, the new National Rowing Centre at Inniscarra, County Cork, Ireland’s new golf academy in Maynooth and Tennis Ireland’s new national centre at Glasnevin, Dublin. In considering applications under the programme each year, my Department engages in a process of consultation with the Irish Sports Council and the main governing bodies of sport in regard to the prioritisation of projects to be funded. In 2004, for example, special consideration was given to national hockey and cricket facilities here to host international tournaments in 2005.
Ireland’s remarkable victories in cricket against Zimbabwe last year and against the West Indies this year has given a new vigour to cricket in Ireland. The year 2005 sees Ireland hosting the ICC Trophy with the first rounds of the 2005 trophy being played in Belfast and the playoffs, semi-finals and final in Dublin. The ICC Trophy gives the opportunity for the lesser nations to compete on the cricket world stage and also means that the top five finishers gain qualification for the next cricket world cup in the West Indies in 2007. In recognition of the importance of this tournament, 11 cricket clubs were allocated grants this year in connection with the hosting of the International Cricket Council Trophy in 2005, in addition to funding allocated in respect of cricket’s national indoor centre located in Balbriggan. The purpose of these grants is to assist clubs in improving their facilities and bringing them to a standard suitable to host such a prestigious event.
The sports capital programme also grants funding to develop regional sports centres all over Ireland. Grants have been provided in recent years to such projects located in Athlone, Bray, Navan, Waterford and many other towns. Many of these facilities are also being part funded through my Department’s local authority swimming pool programme, which has been in operation since 1999. Under this programme, grants of up to €3.8 million are made available towards either the refurbishment of existing pools or the provision of a new pool, subject in both cases to the total grant not exceeding 80% of the eligible cost of the project or 90% for projects located in designated disadvantaged areas. Since 2000, 55 swimming projects have been dealt with under the programme. A total of 14 swimming pool projects have been completed — the most recent in Finglas in Dublin, Grove Island in Limerick, Ballinasloe and Clounalour and these modern and well-equipped facilities are open to the public. Further swimming pool projects are under way in eight locations around the country in Clonmel, Tuam, Ballymun, Cobh, Drogheda, Ballyfermot and Youghal. A sum of €28 million has been spent on this programme between 2000 and 2003 with a further provision of €15 million in 2004.
Notwithstanding the substantial funding invested in the provision of sporting and recreational facilities in recent years, the Government, as stated in the programme for Government, is committed to building facilities locally and nationally. To assist in the identification of new facility requirements we will put in place a long-term strategic plan for sports facilities. The first step towards developing such a strategy is a review of the existing sports capital programme under the Department’s expenditure review programme.
The impact of sport extends far beyond the playing pitches and athletic grounds. It has obvious benefits in promoting health and fitness, self-esteem and personal well being. Nowadays, it has a growing commercial and economic significance. Sporting achievements provide a morale boost for the country at large, focus international attention on our country and promote our image as an attractive place to visit and invest in. In this context, I want to ensure that ordinary people everywhere in this country have every opportunity to engage in the sport of their choice — from the young in body to the young in spirit.
Sport is something worthwhile which everybody can pursue — male and female, young and old, rich and poor. It has no age, gender or class barriers. I intend to ensure that the best climate is created to encourage people to participate in sport, that the best facilities are provided to enhance people’s enjoyment of sport and to help create a sporting structure which helps to ensure maximum participation in sport. Sport is for all. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members.
I am very interested in sport and local communities. In the late 1980s, my local soccer club, Boyle Celtic, applied for funding through the national lottery. The club was the second on file to apply for funding from the proposed lottery grants. The club received a very generous contribution of €20,000, which certainly helped to enhance its facilities and secure a base for the young people of the area. It was very unusual at the time for clubs to own a soccer pitch. The club had one senior team but now has two senior teams and five under age teams. Over the years, the club has been very proud to supply players to play for Sligo Rovers. One player has played in the English premier division. Without the funding, we certainly would not have done so well. However, lottery money has not always been put to the best use.
We talk of the national self-confidence that resulted from the Celtic tiger, but the Jack Charlton era certainly led to great self-confidence and goodwill among Irish football supporters and people of every country those supporters visited. In 1988 the Irish team went to Germany with approximately 10,000 supporters and we did not believe we would do so well. We had a tremendous result and beat England by one goal to nil. This instilled in us self-confidence in the fact that this country was as good as any other. While travelling around Germany for two weeks, I noted that all the Irish felt that the Germans liked us and that we had something to offer, including a sense of humour and fun. We were innocent regarding many matters, football especially.
During the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and the various qualifying rounds for the World Cup held in the USA in 1994, the Irish team travelled to virtually every country in Europe and all of these countries have grown to like us. This also made us self-confident and made us feel we were as good as any other country. The Jack Charlton era — the FAI era — certainly helped this country to grow up. We have done it through football in the most amusing and incredible way.
Consider the local and provincial teams. The Minister, as a Kerryman, knows the Kerry team exudes much confidence. If one’s team is doing well and one is winning All-Ireland finals every second year, it is very easy to walk around with a swagger. When Leitrim won its first Connacht championship for many years in 1994, self-confidence was certainly instilled in the county, which borders Roscommon. Masonite, a major factory, located in Carrick-on-Shannon mainly because its representatives visited the town during the celebrations and saw a community that was united and very pleasant. The Minister rightly stated that sport transcends many barriers. The payback can sometimes be very undervalued.
Croke Park would certainly be a credit to any amateur organisation. Mr. Sean Kelly, president of the GAA, was before an Oireachtas committees last week. It was good to see an enlightened individual such as he, who has a clear vision of the role of the GAA and of sport, express an interest in sport for all. Sport should not be as competitive as it is but should be enjoyed by all. Everybody should have the right to play sport.
I note from the Minister’s speech that he agreed to provide €191 million towards the cost of the new stadium at Lansdowne Road, which is estimated to amount to €300 million over five years. I welcome the funding which has certainly given life to the project although it has been made available many years too late.
The failure to assist in providing appropriate stadia for soccer and rugby has been a major downfall of the Government. Its waste of money to date through indecision and incompetence in the pursuit of one possible stadium to the exclusion of many other options has certainly not been a help. Persistent Government meddling in the stadium development plans of the FAI and the IRFU has meant that we do not have a proper stadium for these organisations’ games. The Government should take some, if not much, of the blame for this.
Two years ago, we went through the charade of being told we had a great chance of hosting the finals of Euro 2004. The Oireachtas played a game against the Scottish Parliament in Trinity College and we were all enthusiastic. While not wishing to sound negative, this was one of the greatest charades ever. People were brought to a stadium and as good as promised that it could be used as a venue, although I believe the Government knew it would not be open. The people were brought around the country in a so-called white van, thereby increasing the hopes of many people, including ourselves.
The total Exchequer contribution to the redevelopment of Croke Park is €110 million. The cost of the total project amounts to €265 million. I am certainly not saying the Exchequer contribution was not money well spent but some conditions should have been applied to ensure that the Taoiseach did not end up in the embarrassing position in which he seemed to be meddling in the GAA’s affairs.
The Minister referred to witnessing Portugal’s best performance in a major championship in Euro 2004 and South Korea’s World Cup heroics before a home crowd in 2002. Would we not love to see Ireland in such a position? We are now in an embarrassing position in which we may have to go to Old Trafford, Celtic Park or Anfield. We should not be in this position as we have had seven years to plan ahead. Planning permission for the Lansdowne Road project will be sought in 2005 and the grounds may be finished in 2008. We are relying on the goodwill of that great amateur organisation, the GAA, to open its doors to allow a soccer international to be played in its stadium. This is not good enough and is undermining all the good that emerged from the Jack Charlton era.
Consider what has been happening in the FAI in recent days. Politics are possibly being played in the organisation but I do not know. I do not want to stand on one side or the other. I am not getting involved in its internal affairs by saying that in order to generate confidence among the sporting public, the Government should report on the implementation of the recommendations of the Genesis report as a matter of urgency. We cannot be putting money into sport once again without any reassurances that the report will be implemented. The Genesis report, which was accepted on all sides, was a reasonable, measured and progressive report on the future of association football in Ireland and its recommendations should be implemented.
In the early 1980s, cycling’s Nissan Classic came to my area. Considerable expenditure was put into the area but sometimes we over-emphasise the value of these tournaments. The Minister has fallen into this trap and in 2006 the biggest golf tournament of all, the Ryder Cup, will be held at the K Club. It will be televised to more than 700 million homes in no fewer than 42 countries, with 47 stations broadcasting the event, which will provide potential for new tourism markets in eastern Europe and China. We have witnessed a great deal of hype about many of these events. They have been of benefit but I am sure millions of Chinese will not be coming here because they saw the Ryder Cup. These events are helpful but they should not be sold like products at a bazaar; they will not change the tourism potential of the country. Exposure from the Ryder Cup will further enhance Ireland’s standing as a top quality golfing destination, but we should not oversell it.
Reference was made to funding of €331 million for more than 4,200 projects. Many of the projects have helped young people and kept them away from crime, and sport raises our health and fitness levels. Three weeks ago I was fortunate to play on a new astro-turf facility, which the Government generously supported. However, we should examine the manner in which these grants are provided because it is more than about providing facilities from a Government slush fund. If Fine Gael were in power, perhaps it would be a slush fund for that party. The same might apply to the Labour Party or the Green Party. Checks should be carried out on projects that receive funding. We can all be parochial, but the provision of grants appears to favour current Ministers’ local areas. While one can never overspend on sports facilities, perhaps we should redress the perceived imbalance which exists. It might be better to take away responsibility for such funding from the ministerial portfolio.
One issue with which I have great difficulty is the sports capital programme, which provides funding to regional sports centres throughout Ireland. I am aware that state-of-the-art facilities have been provided in Bray, Navan, Athlone and Waterford. I am proud of the swimming pool which has been provided in my area in Roscommon. However, Deputies and Senators from other towns still await facilities. Funding of up to €3.8 million is available. Some 55 swimming pools have been dealt with under the programme and 14 swimming pool projects have been completed. If one lives outside the loop of a county town, it will be nine, ten or 12 years before state-of-the-art facilities are provided.
The Minister said that ordinary people throughout the country should have an opportunity to engage in the sport of their choice. My sport of choice is swimming but if I must drive 27 miles or 30 miles on dark and cold winter nights, it will not be my sport of my choice. I will put on a track suit and walk the roads of Ireland like everyone else. It is everyone’s right to have facilities of an equal standard. Some €3.5 million would be money well spent on a sports centre in towns in north Roscommon such as Castlerea, Boyle, Strokestown, Ballaghderreen and Carrick-on-Shannon where there are no proper sports facilities. Various Departments could be involved. Money is being misspent and we are not getting value for money. A school in my area is receiving €700,000 or €800,000 to refurbish the gymnasium. The former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, said that we should get value for money. I suggested involving the health board, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and the county council, each of which could provide funding for a decent facility, not a soccer pitch, GAA pitch or tennis club here and there. There could be €3 million or €4 million state-of-the-art facilities and centres of excellence in each town with a catchment area. The current catchment areas are too big. This would be money well spent and it would save the Exchequer money.
Ireland has the highest rate of heart disease in the EU, with the disease claiming almost 14,000 victims each year. Some heart disease is preventable. It often begins in childhood and accelerates because of bad lifestyle and diet. The Government should provide funding for health and leisure centres, not just in major growth centres but in towns with a population of 2,500 or 3,000 people which need the facilities. I am not prepared to spend an hour driving 27 miles for a 40 minute swim because it would take too much time. As has been said, a lot has been done but a lot more must be done.
Mr. K. Phelan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, to the House. I did not get an opportunity in public to wish him well in his new portfolio. I have no doubt he will do an excellent job. I wish Senator Feighan well in his new position as spokesperson on arts, sports and tourism. There is more to Ireland than Roscommon when it comes to sport but I will leave it at that for now.
I am pleased to be able to speak here today on the subject of our national sporting facilities. We have a wonderful sporting tradition in each townland, parish, village, town and city. No matter where one travels throughout the country, sport plays a huge part in the lives of young and old people, whether as participants, supporters, trainers, coaches or managers. Even though the debate is about national sporting facilities, we cannot talk about these facilities without addressing local sport and local sporting organisations. In recent years, I have been pleased to see the amount of money the Government has put into local sport and community organisations. I am chairman of Rathdowney GAA Club in Laois. We are well aware of the role the GAA and other local sporting organisations play in the life of rural Ireland. In many areas of the country there are little or no sporting or recreational facilities apart from those provided by the GAA.
While on the subject of the GAA, I would like to say a few words on an important matter. Croke Park is one of the finest sporting stadiums in the world. Each time I attended Croke Park, I was struck by the quality, size and comfort of the stadium. GAA members can be proud of their stadium, which is a monument to the men and women who run the GAA as a voluntary organisation. It is also a monument to the men and women who have gone before us who laid the foundations for one of the greatest and most successful voluntary organisations in Ireland, if not in the world. The men and women who set up the GAA were very forward thinking and took great risks. When Peter Quinn served as president of the GAA, he took a huge risk in making plans for a dramatic expansion and redevelopment of Croke Park. We are seeing the benefit of this vision today when we look at this fine stadium on Jones Road. However, Croke Park lies idle for most of the year, which is a major financial burden on the GAA. I have no problem saying that rule 42 is out of date. Rule 42 belongs to history and should no longer be the central issue. I do not support those who engage in GAA bashing as I am a proud supporter and member of the GAA. However, times have changed and so must the GAA. A ban on so-called foreign sports is no longer relevant. People in the association who refuse to discuss this matter live with their heads in the sand. They argue that the association is in competition with other sports and should not hand over its stadium to them.
We will be the laughing stock of European soccer and rugby soon when we have to send our international teams to stadiums in places such as Liverpool or Glasgow to play their matches because senior GAA officials refuse to allow discussion on the matter of opening up Croke Park. There is nothing patriotic in this and nothing to be gained from forcing our national sports stars to play their home international games on foreign soil. If American singers, for example Neil Diamond or Garth Brooks, can hold concerts in Croke Park or American football can be played there, why can people such as Roy Keane, Damien Duff, etc., not line out in their green jerseys for their country in the finest stadium in the land? GAA clubs exist in America, London, Australia and many other places. If the sporting authorities in these places throughout the world were to adopt the same attitude as the GAA here, it would be next to impossible for these young GAA clubs to become established. I would like to see the GAA face reality and fully debate rule 42 with its members.
To return to the main issue, this Government has worked hard to improve sporting facilities across the country and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism has allocated significant funding under the national lottery funded sports capital programme. One of the main Government policies on the development of sport and recreation facilities is increased participation, particularly in disadvantaged areas. The sports capital programme is the primary vehicle for supporting the development of such facilities for voluntary sporting organisations at local, regional and national levels. Grants are allocated towards projects such as multi-purpose sports halls, athletics stadiums and Gaelic, soccer and rugby pitches.
Since 1998, the sports capital programme has been the catalyst for the delivery of modern well-equipped facilities in all counties. It has provided grants to the value of over €321 million to 4,250 projects throughout the country. I am confident the Government is doing a wonderful job in the promotion of sport and the provision of sports facilities where needed. Much more can be done at local level to continue promoting sport and recreation. Doctors warn us that society has become less active and that the dangers from obesity and illness have increased. Therefore, we must continue to support every organisation that tries to promote sport and involve young and old in exercise. If we do this, the health of the people will remain good.
In January of this year, the Minister announced a €191 million package towards the construction of the new Lansdowne Road stadium for which the IRFU, the FAI and the Government have drawn up wonderful plans. I look forward to seeing the stadium completed on time and on budget. Both the IRFU and the FAI should be complimented on the manner in which they have come together to pool their resources in the interest of sport as a whole. The Government will not be found wanting in its desire to see the stadium open in December 2008.
Perhaps we should take a leaf from the GAA’s book with regard to building a world class stadium. We can learn much from it. In planning the new Croke Park it planned for the future and built to the highest standards. Many critics at the time described the Croke Park plans as pie in the sky or over the top. However, the GAA carried on with them and tribute must be paid to people like Peter Quinn who had the vision to see the project through.
I thank the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, who has done a fantastic job. He has been a great sports Minister and has invested significant funding in projects throughout the country. Anybody who visits O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, in my county, can see how the funding has resulted in one of the finest sports stadiums in the midlands. We are proud of that stadium. However, it would not be there but for the funding provided by the Minister.
Mr. O’Toole: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is always good to see a man of ability welcomed to the top in Fianna Fáil. He should ensure he is not exiled to Brussels, like another good man who left a while ago.
On a serious note, I am delighted this debate is taking place and that it is the broad issue we are discussing. I too regret that we have not gone ahead with the construction of a stadium at Abbotstown. It is a mistake not to have done so. The Abbotstown issue is a classic example of an idea that was run and led by the media. If it was a problem of size, we could have dealt with it. If it was a problem of costs, it could have been built on a phased basis. It was a mistake to withdraw from the project.
I want to examine the issue of national sports facilities in a number of ways. As a Kerryman, it is delightful for me to see a Kerry Minister come here and say that he is committed to ensuring that hockey and cricket do well, as well as Gaelic games. This is a reflection of the broadminded education in sport we received in that part of the south west.
Mr. O’Toole: It shows the development from populist sports to minority sports — a hugely important structural organic development. The most popular sports around the country are Gaelic games. If someone tried to quantify the cost or value of the commitment in terms of social capital, time, community bonding, sense of place, saving from delinquency and encouragement of health, no amount of money could pay for what the GAA has given to this country. That is a fact and I welcome any opportunity to defend the Government’s investment in Gaelic sport. I do not defend it because it is Gaelic sport, but because it is the most successful and widespread organisation in the country. It is in every corner and parish and has cultivated a sense of place, pride and respect for an area. We must recognise that fact.
In similar terms, we must support the two great field games of rugby and soccer where they are important and popular. The mark of true sports people is that they are interested in all sport. I never met a Kerry inter-county Gaelic footballer who did not have an interest in golf, rugby, soccer, racing and almost any other sport. They are prepared to attend and take an interest in these other sports. This is the core of the issue and it is very important.
I want to move from the current big debate to the organic steps towards which we should be looking. We know where we stand on the big games and I have said what I have to say with regard to proper facilities of an international standard for our major field sports. However, the new development over the past ten years has been the major investment in sports such as canoeing, hockey and cricket. These are important. The fact that a young Irish lad is being sought after to play international cricket for England is something we never thought we would see happen. This should be recognised.
We must also look at sport on the basis of age. Our population is facing problems of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and so on. The sports I have mentioned are played by true athletes who are on the top of their game and to whom we all look up. However, participation must begin at a young age. Every primary school should have a PE hall or access to a PE facility. In some cases local football clubs make their facilities available to nearby schools but in too many cases games cannot go ahead on wet days. Lack of participation by young people in sport will lead to health costs in the future. This issue has been widely debated.
The question of participation in sport by older people has not been so widely debated. Most people give up sport when they reach a certain age and the only sport then available to them is golf. There is nothing wrong with golf if that is what people want to do. However, we should not forget walking, trekking, fishing, boating, canoeing and other sporting activities which older people can enjoy. The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, should recognise the value of investment in sports which draw older people into active involvement in sport. We should put greater investment into water based sports such as angling, fishing and so on.
Some years ago when we discussed the development in Abbotstown it was proposed to have four segments in the development. There was to have been a stadium, an aquatic centre and the headquarters of various sporting bodies. The fourth part was to have been a centre of excellence where people who excelled in their sport at a young age could attend school in the centre of excellence. These young people would develop their skills and talents while being educated. This facility would have provided a role model to young people who would see that young talented people also have a space in which to operate.
We need a sporting investment from the most popular through to minority sports and those in which older people can participate. The most popular sport in the United Kingdom is not soccer but fishing. More people engage in fishing in the UK than in any other outdoor sport or activity. Fishing is also popular in Ireland. It should be recognised as an activity which takes people out into the open air and helps them appreciate their surroundings. It is as important and valuable as playing for the local senior hurling or football team. We must not ignore sports such as fishing, especially when we can develop them in Ireland. We must develop the popular sports, minority sports and sports for young people and elderly people. People should be able to participate in sport for as long as they are alive. This is not difficult to do. It is simply a matter of having a positive view on ageing and on the aged and of making facilities available.
Last summer, on a river bank in France I saw a wheelchair accessible fishing spot. Such facilities may be available in Ireland but I have never seen one. It would not be difficult to develop them in Ireland, particularly in the Leas-Chathaoirleach’s county of Roscommon where roads often run very close to rivers.
We must encourage the total involvement of the population, of all ages and of all levels of talent, in sport and outdoor activities. We should have schools of excellence, we should encourage competitive sports for excellent athletes and young people. Older people and people with disabilities should be involved in sport and PE facilities should be provided for all primary schools. Finally, we should revitalise the Abbotstown proposal.
Mr. P. Burke: I thank Senator O’Toole for sharing his time with me and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I acknowledge the contribution of the GAA in the provision of sporting facilities in every half parish in the country.
There should be greater interaction between the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, the Department of Education and Science and the planning departments of local authorities. The Minister with responsibility for sport should have an input into county development plans. He should be asked to say what facilities should be provided within a given area where rezonings are taking place and he should provide a template for those areas. Such a template would be of great assistance to local authorities and local authority members in formulating county development plans.
The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism should also have an input into the Department of Education and Science in bringing together the sporting facilities of more than one school or college in a town. Every college in the country is trying to provide sporting facilities for its students. These facilities could be provided jointly and used by more than one college in common. Specialist sports instructors could also be shared by a number of colleges within a given town or area.
We should also have a template for swimming pools. I cannot understand why every local authority in the country is designing swimming pools. Why can a template not be provided for each local authority which could then raise the necessary funds and build the swimming pool? It is ridiculous that every local authority is drawing up individual plans for swimming pools.
I did some hill walking this summer. This sport is on the increase in Ireland and could be greatly enhanced with a little funding. We have wonderful walks in Ireland. These could be advertised and funded and facilities provided for those who wish to participate.
Mr. Morrissey: With the permission of the House I will share my time with Senator Brennan. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and for the paper he has delivered. It contained very little with which any Member could quibble. Indeed, I am pleased to hear the Minister make a commitment to carry out an audit of sports facilities throughout the country. One of the purposes of that audit, once completed, would be to avoid duplication in the future development of sports facilities. In that context, I take issue with Senator O’Toole’s comment that he would like the Abbotstown facilities to be revitalised. He stated he wants another national stadium built at Abbotstown. A forward-looking management plan has been put in place for Lansdowne Road, however, whereby the major sporting organisations have signed a contract to work together. We will have to adopt the same approach to stadia across the country. I hope the audit to which the Minister referred will avoid duplication and ensure such co-operation between sporting bodies in the future.
I would remind Senator O’Toole that as recently as last week it appeared that the metro will not be delivered for Dublin. One of the basic components of the Abbotstown development was that we would have a metro system by 2007 or 2008. That will not happen now. If the Abbotstown plan were to be revitalised, therefore, it would have to be done in the knowledge that there will be no fast-track public transport system to the area. The metro was the benchmark by which the plan was written and the bedrock upon which it was to be built.
Like many Members, I am a supporter of the GAA and of sport in general. One could say that public debate now comes down to who played well last night and what team formation will play tonight, rather than what took place in the Seanad or the Dáil. We are all aware of the feeling of satisfaction when we see our national sporting representatives performing well abroad. Our sporting fans are a source of pride and joy when they travel overseas to international fixtures. For that reason I want to see fans accommodated in world-class stadia here, which will be the case at Lansdowne Road.
I compliment the Government on the magnificent contribution it is making by way of allocating grants for sporting endeavour across the country. In my own housing estate, for example, grants have been made available for all-weather sports surfaces. However, co-operation is required between various sports clubs in sharing such all-weather facilities. It is not fair for one club to claim that since it received a grant it will have the exclusive use of such a facility. We must be imaginative and forward looking, as is the Lansdowne Road proposal. In that case, major sporting organisations are offering to work together in their future use of the modernised facility.
One aspect of the Sports Campus Ireland project was a school of sporting excellence, which should be developed now. Initially, we should review the current state of Irish sport, both nationally and internationally. We must review the Irish Sports Council’s strategy, along with our international sports performance and the current weaknesses in that strategy. We should also examine the position in other countries which have developed schools of excellence, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy. The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism should embark on an examination of schools of sporting excellence in those countries to see how they were developed.
In addition to examining the research that has been undertaken on sports facilities in those countries, we must aim to develop a world-class performance programme for our elite athletes who require support. It is difficult enough for such athletes to win sponsorship but it is even harder for them to retain it through consistently good performances. The Government must invest in a new, independent high performance centre along the same lines as the school for sporting excellence, which was envisaged for Abbotstown.
As one of the original objectors to the Abbotstown proposal, I think the case against it has been made more than adequately now and the taxpayer has been spared the expense. The debate on Abbotstown should now be put to bed. We must move towards providing a school of sporting excellence for our elite athletes, in addition to local sports facilities, by investing the money that would have been wasted on building another 80,000-seat stadium. I urge the Minister to embark upon such an investment plan.
Mr. Brennan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I wish him well for the future. I recognise the work of the Minister, Deputy O’Donoghue, and his Government colleagues in approving sports funding under the national lottery as part of the programme for Government. It is nice to see all sporting codes availing of grants. I would like to think that the grants provided to the Gaelic Athletic Association for the development of Croke Park were in recognition of that organisation’s provision of a world-class stadium. The GAA provided sports facilities around the country long before the introduction of sporting grants and the recent earmarking of funds for the GAA was also in recognition of that fact. The use of the playing facilities at Croke Park is a business proposition that will be sorted out in the near future.
Much has been said about the allocation of sports grants to parishes throughout the country. It should be said, however, that the committees that earmarked such developments comprise members of political parties and of none. The Government has rewarded that community effort by providing such facilities at local level. Charges have been levied to provide certain local facilities in towns and villages under development plans outlined by community groups in conjunction with local authorities. It is important to work together to provide social facilities of which we can be proud. I congratulate the Minister of State on his performance.
Mr. Ryan: I listened with interest to the Minister’s speech. There is not much point, however, in rehearsing the history of a member of the minority party in Government who talked about the Ceausescu-style project in Abbotstown. I have always been somewhat ambivalent about these allegedly Ceausescu-type projects. We should have had decent cost estimates, which we rarely have, at the beginning of the debate, as distinct from fudged, guessed and sometimes, I suspect, deliberately distorted estimates. We have a culture in a large part of the public sector whereby one will only get approval for something if one keeps the price low. Once approval is obtained, however, it appears that it was never really going to cost that much. It is never said, of course, and at the Committee of Public Accounts people will deny that it was ever the case.
I heard the Minister of State responsible for decentralisation explain that the delays envisaged in that programme — which were not originally envisaged — were due to the need to deal with such matters through proper EU procedures. This begs the question as to whether the Government did not know when it made the original announcement that it would have to operate through EU procedures. I do not make this as a political point. I am saying we have put ourselves into a culture where we seem to believe the necessary way to deal with funding in the public sector is to underestimate, leave out a bit, get through the filters of the Department of Finance, get started and then claim the job cannot be finished without additional money. This arose at Punchestown and was evident in the gradual mushrooming of the cost of the huge original project at Abbotstown.
There were interesting and serious questions about the location, costs, etc. of the Abbotstown project. However, the principle of a prestigious world quality campus and stadium never seemed as outrageous to me as some in my party and others suggested. The Taoiseach might have let his sense of his own position in history run away with him somewhat. This does not get away from the fact that there was much to be said of it in principle. We still embarrassingly perceive ourselves as an impoverished country that could not be expected to have the facilities other countries have, but we could and we should. However, we will not get them without spending money on them.
This country needs and deserves to get such national sporting facilities for reasons articulated by the Minister, which I share. I believe one of the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for sporting success is to have good facilities and the sense of being involved. I am glad the project in Lansdowne Road is now apparently going ahead. However, I have huge questions and reservations about the way one of the two organisations directly involved carries on its business. As the House has rules about mentioning outside bodies, I will restrain myself.
I will put it in a positive sense. Many of us would have seen the IRFU as the definition of a fuddy-duddy organisation run by men in blazers who had lost contact with reality years ago. However, the way it adjusted to the extraordinary change in the culture of rugby and its ability to show flexibility and imagination, for example in the decision to have four serious professional teams — the four provinces — showed a capacity to deal with the world as it was changing, which the GAA has also shown. My omission of reference to another organisation is sufficient commentary on it without breaking the rules of the House.
Mr. Ryan: With that invitation, let me say that the FAI must be the definition of incompetence in running a sporting organisation. We have had the mystery of how stadia appear and disappear. How many headquarters has soccer had in Cork? At one stage what is now the second GAA pitch was the headquarters of the most prestigious team. It then moved to Turners Cross. Afterwards it moved to what is now the dog track and then it moved back again. I am horrified at the number of chief executives the organisation has had. I believe it is seven.
I am worried about the stewardship of the national stadium with that apparent level of inability to do anything in a coherent fashion. A native of the city in which I live, when he finally broke the silence, pointed out that on international duty the players travelled in economy class and the important people travelled in business class. It is not so much a question of who travelled in which class. However, the idea that a sporting organisation could believe that was a reasonable way to do business suggests a lack of connection with reality and with proper management. In that context I am concerned about the management of the proposed new facility at Lansdowne Road.
The contrast between that and the extraordinary foresight of the GAA is stark. The GAA decided to proceed with the development of Croke Park before it had a guarantee of a cent of public money. It proceeded because it knew it faced only two routes - backwards or forwards. Instead of spending years agonising, it decided to have faith in the future and proceed. The development of Croke Park was an extraordinarily high-risk project which the GAA took on with great courage and for which it deserves to be commended unequivocally. Let us not have a rider saying, “But now it should...” I believe it is in the GAA’s own commercial interest to rent Croke Park to other organisations on a commercial basis.
However, I can fully understand the reasons some in the GAA have reservations about doing so. We need to consider the historical role of the three biggest football-playing organisations in the State, from where they come and their previous associations. I grew up in a home with clear perceptions about each of the organisations and who played different games. While I am thankful that is now history, a clear perception and feeling existed about the matter.
In many ways I would be defined as the ultimate urban liberal. Urban liberals should lay off the GAA, which represents a soft target for people living in south Dublin in particular. I remember a prominent rugby player who lived in north Dublin. He stated in a radio interview that he travelled from where he lived in Malahide or Babbriggan to a certain well-known rugby-playing school in the centre of Dublin. Until he was almost 30 years of age he did not even know of the existence of Croke Park, much less what games were played there. There is an element in our society, which from that level of lack of knowledge — I will avoid using more pejorative terms — has decided that it must pronounce on the GAA.
I mentioned this matter on the Order of Business this morning and will repeat it at greater length now. We got to the ludicrous position last week where, first, an eminent academic lawyer, who is entitled to whatever opinion he wishes, suggested that the GAA might be in breach of EU and Irish competition law. He was followed by a senior official of the Competition Authority who offered similar views. This is getting into the realm of the ludicrous. The only thing that could follow would be an insistence that the Roman Catholic Church would be obliged to allow any other religion to use one of its churches for fear of abusing a dominant position. It is ludicrous to try to say that an amateur sporting organisation, run on an entirely voluntary basis at local level with players and referees who are unpaid, is somehow the subject of competition law that is meant to deal with the machinations of ruthless multinationals.
I believe the GAA acts in its own interest. I also believe that if stupid urban liberals have the wit not to make pronouncements we will not be short of a venue if Lansdowne Road is not available for major internationals. Many sensible people in the GAA are interested and do not want to see any national team having to play home games outside the country. However, it is counterproductive and wrong to suggest the GAA is under some moral or legal obligation to have others decide who it should allow use its stadium.
There are logical inconsistencies in the approach taken by the GAA. Why international boxing should be acceptable and not soccer, and why a game played under a compromise set of international rules should be acceptable and something else not is entirely open to intellectual debate. While it may be entertaining to discuss over a pint, it is not the issue. The issue is the sovereign right of a sporting organisation to decide how its stadium is used and understanding that it will not accept Government funding with explicit or implicit conditions attached.
In his speech the Minister correctly expanded beyond the question of large stadia in Dublin to sporting facilities nationally. He spoke at length about the Ryder Cup which is to be held in Ireland in two years time. Like everyone else, I am delighted it will take place here. However, in terms of investment in sporting facilities for use by the Irish people, I have reservations about the scale of proliferation of golf courses — they seem to have a capacity for reproduction that only rabbits can exceed. Golf courses by their nature are usually in areas of considerable amenity value. The Old Head of Kinsale Golf Club, one of the most prestigious judging by its charges, has prevented traditional public access to one of the most scenic seaside areas in County Cork. It is a matter of friction that the company that developed it was granted planning permission on condition that public access continued. The company then went to the High Court and, ultimately, to the Supreme Court. Having previously accepted the planning conditions, it contended that some of them were impossible and, sadly, the courts agreed with it. The right of the public to cross the course to go to the amenity area that was always open to them — although there was no right of way — has been taken away. It is extraordinary that we develop sporting facilities that are elitist and in the process remove recreational opportunity from people, barring them from quasi-sporting facilities they would have had otherwise.
Fundamentally, we still do not spend enough money on sports facilities. If I swim in a public swimming pool for an hour three times a week, I will spend more in a year than I would pay in membership for a private swimming pool that I could use all the time. That issue must be addressed by those who believe in public access to good quality sporting facilities. The costs are prohibitive in public facilities and the private facilities are beyond people’s reach because of the initial sum involved. If we are to deal with the issues of restless youth and under age drinking, part of the solution is old fashioned: very few young people who are actively involved in sport get themselves into serious trouble during those dangerous years between 13 and 20. For that reason alone, it is worthwhile investing far more in sports facilities.
Dr. Mansergh: This Government has shown a tremendous commitment to sport. The role of the Government is to support voluntary and community efforts because there are areas which do not need public support. I do not want to be partisan but there are politicians who only open their mouths on this subject to criticise Government funding for one or other branch of sport or a proposed facility, appealing mainly to the armchair critics whose attitude to exercise is to lie down when they feel it coming on until it goes away.
The sports capital programme is of benefit throughout the State and since I became a public representative I have enjoyed meeting sports clubs that are making applications. Any sporting organisation that has a well thought out project and can raise the necessary funding on its side stands a good chance of being successful. I recently had the pleasure of opening some beautifully refurbished tennis courts in Tipperary which are often used by local schools and the community. Just across the way from them is a site where decentralised offices will be located so the tennis club may have many more members in the near future.
It is amazing to think back to the days of Jim Tunney 23 years ago, when the first sports programme amounted to a few hundred thousand pounds, and the way it has grown since. Senator Ryan mentioned surprise references in the Minister’s speech to cricket clubs, demonstrating that the programme is very pluralist when it comes to need.
I welcome the flagship projects, Croke Park, which is a source of great pride to the GAA, and the Lansdowne Road redevelopment. I differ from some speakers on international games. Visitors like coming to city centres so I was never hugely enthusiastic about bringing them a long way out of the city centre. There is merit in Abbotstown, however, because it will not duplicate Croke Park or Lansdowne Road and can concentrate on the other things a national stadium should provide.
I agree with Senator Ryan in that I get irritated when people lecture the GAA about what it should do, simply because it is so counterproductive and serves only to get people’s backs up. Nevertheless, there is a case for cultural cross-fertilisation. It is as much about the GAA playing in Lansdowne Road as it would be about rugby or soccer on a few occasions using the facilities at Croke Park. The GAA has nothing about which to be defensive. It is a highly successful organisation. It is more pronounced in the North than it is here and for very understandable historical and political reasons but I do not like what I would call echoes of a kulturkampf which belong to a different era — a sort of cultural struggle with one outlook and national identity pitched against another. I even heard a colleague in the Seanad refer to garrison games and seeming to mean it with all seriousness. I hope we have got beyond that era. As one GAA county manager said, sports are not rivals of each other. Their main rival is apathy and couch potatoism. They are allies rather than rivals in many ways.
I agree with Senator O’Toole about the need for more sports facilities to be made available to schools and for sport to be more clearly integrated into the school curriculum. They do not necessarily have to be on site; they can be nearby or over the wall. People should share and use the facilities available in an area. Apart from anything else, we constantly hear about the danger of obesity.
There is a relationship between sport and tourism which is reflected in the Minister’s responsibilities. We in this country have the advantage of space. Many facilities are available to us at reasonable cost. If one gets involved in sports here, one could get very wet given the climate. However, one can get warm without melting in a sweltering heat.
I agree with Senator Ryan about the Old Head of Kinsale. It is wrong that natural facilities should be closed off primarily for commercial reasons and, perhaps to a degree, for security reasons. There should be a right of access to major landmarks in the State. There should be a national policy preventing, and the planning authorities should not permit, places being completely closed off.
We are coming towards the end of the financial year and Exchequer finances are in exceptionally good order. If there are particularly worthwhile but not too expensive capital projects in the sporting or other areas which do not have ongoing current expenditure implications, the end of the year is a good time to include or accommodate one or two of them without upsetting this year’s budget or next year’s budget calculations. This is especially the case in view of the capital underspend.
Mr. McHugh: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, and, somewhat belatedly, congratulate him on his new post. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, and himself must have been contemplating and working behind the scenes around this time last year.
Mr. McHugh: I wish to make a few points on sports capital projects in County Donegal. When Deputy McDaid was Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation he delivered, which I acknowledge. The people of County Donegal will always acknowledge that during his tenure as Minister, they did well in getting a substantial amount of funding for voluntary organisations at grassroots level ranging from snooker clubs to Gaelic clubs to soccer clubs to boxing clubs. It is much appreciated in that part of the country.
A sports complex was sanctioned in Letterkenny and funding is pending. I hope the project will not become a white elephant because it is an ambitious one which will require a substantial amount of money. It is not at the tentative, early stages. Much of the work has been done by Letterkenny Urban District Council and a lot of the negotiations have taken place. However, we await money, which is a problem.
I am being parochial when I refer to another ambitious project which tried to get off the ground a few years ago. Paul McGinley, an ambassador for this country and a member of the recent and previous Ryder Cup team, and a group of his colleagues tried to develop a golf course not too far from my home town. The syndicate involved came up against a number of obstacles which were blamed on the EU. There is still the possibility of negotiation and if there was a golf course with Paul McGinley’s name attached to it, it would do well and would generate tourism.
Senator O’Toole referred to sports on the school curriculum. While we could dwell too much on the physical infrastructure — the sports complexes — which are needed for sports such as football, soccer and swimming, it is important we do not miss out on opportunities for adventure sports. We are surrounded by water. I was born two miles from the sea but I do not surf, sail, canoe or participate in any water sport. That is due to the fact they are not done in schools because the resources are not available. It is embarrassing to find people from Belfast coming down every weekend to participate in these sports. The facilities are available in the North for people to engage in and to develop these skills. Adventure sports include not only water sports but hill walking, mountain climbing and abseiling. We have the natural physical infrastructure. We should develop a whole range of facilities and services to engage young people in these sports.
My colleague, Senator John Paul Phelan, has referred to obesity as the new buzz word. We could talk about it until the cows come home. The solution is to engage people in natural, cost-efficient outdoor activity in their own backyard. The only obstacle young people in Letterkenny find is that they do not have youth leaders, workers or bus services to take them five miles out the road to the outdoor pursuit centre. It is an excellent centre that works within limited budgets. In the past two summers it has been trying to develop sailing for local people in rural areas of Donegal. The centre is about drive and capacity and working to get resources to encourage young people to engage in natural activity outdoors that will get them out of the house and away from the Nintendo. I know we do not have many facilities for white water rafting or such like, but this is something that is great craic, good fun, with a good buzz, a natural and healthy pursuit. There is no reason we should not encourage young people to follow the example of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, who is with us at the moment.
On a final note, I agree wholeheartedly with the debate on the GAA. Mr. Seán Kelly, that organisation’s president, attended a committee meeting of the Houses last week. He was upfront and completely honest about what the GAA is doing. It is the backbone of voluntary activity in this country, in terms of getting young people out of doors and involved in sport. The debate should not degenerate into a discussion about whether Croke Park should or should not be opened up. The GAA has traditionally been among the top three organisations in this country, along with the church and another body whose name I will not put on record here, but which might be relegated——
Mr. McHugh: The GAA is quite capable of looking after its own shop and should not be interfered with. In time, matters will evolve. Mr. Kelly even put it on record that in time we will be looking at a situation in which Croke Park will be open to other sports.
I asked the GAA president about the proposed stadium in Northern Ireland currently being mooted. It is important that we remain closely involved in that project. If we are talking about an all-Ireland strategy, cross-Border ministerial councils, etc., we should have an input into that sports stadium in Northern Ireland; we should be part of that as well as the United Kingdom.
Mr. Kitt: I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment. I also welcome this debate which is relevant to the health portfolio. A great deal has been said already today about the drugs strategy. People often inquire about attractions for young people in the sporting sphere and experts always say that if there are enough sport opportunities around, people will not become involved in drugs and other antisocial activities. I am glad the Minister, Deputy O’Donoghue, talked about some of the great successes in recent times. He mentioned Ireland’s win in the international rules series against Australia and the great wins of the Connacht, Leinster and Munster rugby teams. We are becoming somewhat international, also, in sport. What used to be called the Railway Cup or interprovincial championship final was played in Paris this year and last year the hurling final was played in Rome. That is a welcome development. It is certainly good for the players that they should offered such an incentive for winning those series.
The point that was made about young people, at the start, is important, in particular Senator O’Toole’s argument for a PE hall in every school. I strongly support that, but I am always disappointed when I approach the Department of Education and Science on the subject of physical education or a PE hall. One will be told about the large number of schools that need classrooms, the waiting lists for resource teachers, special needs assistants, etc. It would be useful to again put the emphasis on the need for PE halls in our schools, which obviously could be used for the community as well. It is most important, particularly in rural areas, to have that facility available for everybody.
It is important that people have access to swimming pools and do not have to travel long distances to avail of such facilities. In County Galway we are particularly lucky, both in Galway city and in Ballinasloe where a leisure centre has been completed. The construction of a pool is under way in Tuam and there is sanction for a swimming pool in Loughrea. That is an important development in the second largest county in Ireland. There is also the issue of sporting grants, as mentioned by other Senators. I have a list of 34 projects sanctioned in County Galway this year for sports grants, ranging from €8,000 to €280,000. Every year hundreds of applications are rejected for one reason or another. Some get high marks but do not get above the magic figure. I often wonder why those projects are not among the first to be looked at when the next set of applications is made. To my mind they are among the most deserving. I am disappointed every year to see the same projects being rejected, despite people having learned in the process. Such projects should be examined and perhaps their promoters should not have to reapply as the same application will be submitted, particularly if there are two in one year.
I have looked at the marking of these applications and go along with the system as laid down. Reference is made to the parent bodies of particular sports, whether it is the IRFU, the GAA or the FAI. They appear to have a major say in whether a particular project will be successful or not. Take, for example, the town of Tuam, if I may be parochial. Tuam stadium is regarded as the home of football as far as we are concerned in north County Galway. Some years ago, when I was a Member of the Dáil, I brought the local committee to meet the then Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy McDaid, who provided £100,000 for the stadium. Obviously, more funding is needed for that particular stadium. In the most recent application, we are told that the GAA has decided there will be premier stadiums in each county or province. Pearse Stadium in Galway is number one and basically no other project will get funding until that has been completed. I do not believe it is fair or proper that such waiting time is allowed by way of assessment. The same is true as regards the IRFU and the FAI, but there are, naturally, more GAA stadiums around the country than soccer or rugby pitches.
A number of sports were mentioned by the Minister of State as being suitable for development for older people throughout the country. Golf is not the only such sport. I notice golf clubs are not getting much support in recent years because they are being told, in effect, that they should look after themselves. That might not always be valid where the elderly are concerned. However, the Minister of State has also referred to other sports.
It is a source of disappointment that we did not proceed with a national stadium either at Abbotstown or another location. A national centre would have provided a site at which minority sports could be accommodated. Senator Morrissey said there might not be a metro service to Abbotstown, but a very small number of people arrive at Croke Park on the railway from Galway.
Mr. Kitt: We have a ladies’ football team whose members are all-Ireland champions and a few players on the international rules team. I have been a strong supporter of the idea of a national stadium and it never mattered to me where it was located. If it was to be Abbotstown that was well and good. We should be blunt about describing the circumstances in which we now find ourselves as a mess. What will happen with the remaining World Cup qualifying games while Lansdowne Road is being developed? It will be disappointing if we have to travel to Great Britain or another part of Europe to play our home games. I agree with other speakers who have said that without telling the GAA what to do, we must hope Croke Park will be opened to accommodate some of our soccer and rugby matches.
A trend I have noticed in recent years involves the lack of democracy in some of the bodies under discussion. It is very evident in the tendency of player power in the GAA — it does not involve the Minister of State — to push to take over in some counties. Cork was the first county in which players made this move and it looked as if they had a very good case. The Cork team are all-Ireland champions, which, I suppose, allows the players to justify what they did. Cork’s was just one of many teams of players who felt they were not being treated fairly. Players have also used their power in the context of the appointment of managers and selectors in Offaly and other counties. This trend brings into focus the way in which certain organisations operate.
It is important to get young people interested in sport and it would be disappointing if the management involved at under-eight and under-ten level were not doing its job properly. The Department of Education and Science has published an excellent document on staying safe in sport which should be circulated to all sporting clubs. Sport should be a matter for the Department of Education and Science to discuss and not simply with reference to the question of winning for the sake of being the best in a county or parish. This is an important issue of which we should not lose sight. That sport is not simply about winning a medal or cup, but also about taking part, is something we recognise to a great extent. We must give credit to the sporting bodies which organise voluntarily the training, challenge matches and championship games which take place throughout the country at weekends and even midweek.
I thank the Chair for allowing me to say those few words and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. The issue under discussion is strongly related to health, whether it is sport for the young or the elderly. I hope we can find ways to look after minority sports which appear to have been forgotten. It is of great regret that the national stadium did not proceed as that was where minority sports could have been given a home and developed.
Mr. J. Phelan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House on this the first occasion on which I have had the opportunity to do so. I am delighted by his appointment. It is good to see a Member of the Oireachtas soccer and rugby teams in the Seanad to listen to a debate on sport.
I was interested to learn that Senator Mansergh had always been opposed to the building of what became known as the Bertie bowl at Abbotstown. By contrast, Senator Kitt expressed his disappointment that it did not proceed. However, I fully agree with Senator Mansergh that the provision of sporting facilities like a national stadium in existing urban areas is much more desirable than building them on the outskirts of cities. Where the infrastructure is already in place, it should be utilised. Croke Park is a credit to the GAA and I look forward to the provision of a state-of-the-art facility at Lansdowne Road.
I am a member of several sporting organisations. Sadly, I am a junior B hurler as I no longer get the chance to train as much as I did. I am also involved in what someone described earlier as “garrison games” and play a bit of rugby when I get the chance. I share Senator Mansergh’s opinion on the argument that sporting organisations compete with each other. The real opponent is apathy. Every organisation tries to get as many younger people as possible involved in sporting activity.
Several speakers mentioned obesity and health. Obesity is the buzz word of the past few months and it is supposed that we all suffer from the problem or are close to doing so. All kinds of reasons as to why this is the case have been suggested. None of us can deny that young people have become less active and involved in sporting activity than was the case ten or 15 years ago. There are a number of reasons for this. New developments are built in Dublin and rural towns which fail to provide sufficient green space and recreational areas for younger people. We are also confronted with the problem that parents are afraid to let their children out on the street and want to know where they are at all times. This is due to many issues which have emerged in recent years. The way to counteract these problems is to ensure we provide national sporting facilities which are safe, secure and state-of-the-art.
There has been a significant increase in spending on sporting facilities in recent years. However, there have also been concurrent significant increases in the cost of providing such facilities. An example is the often mentioned Bertie bowl with which the Chair’s colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, was very preoccupied in the run-up to the last general election.
Mr. J. Phelan: I apologise. I refer to Senator Brennan’s colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who, in the run-up to the last general election, used highly emotive terms in reference to the building of the Bertie bowl. Despite his choice of language, much of what he said was correct. A great deal of money was spent in Abbotstown which will bear no fruit. The millions of euro involved would have accomplished a great deal for sporting bodies and community groups in Dublin and elsewhere had they been invested otherwise. The Government should learn a lesson from this significant waste of money.
Senator Kitt referred to the provision of sporting facilities in regional towns. In most towns, the GAA is the single most significant provider of facilities for the playing of field sports. I am proud of the fact that Nolan Park in Kilkenny is now a 30,000 capacity stadium which has been developed through the hard work of local GAA members and the foresight of those who run the county board. It is a credit to them and the ordinary members of the organisation in the county.
An emotive issue in County Kilkenny recently was that of playgrounds. While it may not relate specifically to national sporting facilities the provision of playground facilities for younger children has not been up to standard over the past ten or 15 years. In a recent survey, County Kilkenny was found to have no council-provided or council-supported playgrounds. While commitments have been given that this will change, it is a fairly damning statistic. There are not enough playgrounds to encourage toddlers and slightly older children to get active with a view to becoming sports people in later life.
In recent years a good deal of money has been spent and I question the value for money aspect of many schemes. We have seen examples in certain parts of the country of clubs with limited numbers of members being allocated vast sums of money. There is a need for a review of how resources are allocated.
Senator Kitt referred to projects that fall just outside the funding requirement for a particular tranche and have to reapply. Where a project is close to qualifying in one round of funding, it does not make sense that the same application would have to be resubmitted a few months later. Those applications could be carried over to the next round of funding to be announced, thus alleviating much of the duplication that occurs in the system.
I conclude with an example given by a resource teacher in a small part of south Kilkenny, close to Waterford City, called Slieverue, which is often referred to because Waterford City council is continually trying to seek a boundary extension into County Kilkenny.
Mr. J. Phelan: Not an inch. I spoke with the resource teacher in Slieverue who, during the week, was supervising one of the breaks in the yard. The schoolyard consists of a basketball court and a small amount of ground around the edge. There were three soccer matches and a basketball match taking place at the same time in that basketball court in Slieverue national school which caters for 300 or 400 pupils. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator O’Toole who emphasised the necessity to provide facilities for schools throughout the country. Special emphasis should be placed on the provision of sporting facilities in primary schools whether it is extra ground for a soccer or hurling pitch or a multipurpose room that allows for PE indoors. This is a facility in which the Government should invest as there is much to be gained in terms of improvements in people’s health etc.
Mr. Kenneally: I welcome my good friend the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, back to the House. I am glad of the opportunity to participate in the debate. It would be impossible to speak about sporting facilities in Ireland without raising the vexed question of Croke Park. I am not going to tell the GAA what it should or should not do — that is not my business — but, like most, I have a view on it and am as entitled to my opinion as anybody else. My view is that Croke Park should be opened up. I know the Cathaoirleach would disagree with me on that but we will have to agree to disagree.
Mr. Kenneally: The Cathaoirleach does not have to say it, as he has already said so. A few years ago I recall a game of American football in Croke Park and games cannot get more foreign than that. Therefore a precedent has already been set for those type of games being played there. It will be detrimental if an Irish soccer team or an Irish rugby team has to play abroad because no grounds are available in Ireland; that will be a sad day. If the GAA were in a position at that time to provide the facilities and did not, it could be a PR disaster. One wonders why anybody should help the FAI when one sees the mess that organisation is in. Another chief executive has resigned today after 17 months and the previous person did not last too long. It changes its chief executives more often than Fine Gael changes its leader.
Mr. Kenneally: Somebody rightly made the comment that the GAA is an amateur organisation run by professionals and the FAI is a professional organisation run by amateurs. That was proved today. In light of what happened in Lansdowne Road, I was a strong advocate of the Abbotstown project and I was disappointed when it did not proceed. While the stadium aspect is not going ahead the National Aquatic Centre is completed and many other sports facilities are being developed there. I regret the Lansdowne Road Stadium project will take so long but I realise there are difficulties with planning and so on. I wish we could make a decision, get on with the work and put the facility in place but, obviously, there will be delays and appeals and there is nothing we can do about that.
One of the great successes in recent years is the capital sports grants programme because of the amount of money the Minister has to expend, which has been increasing substantially. I remember when it commenced as will many other Members. At that time it was under the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The amounts allocated to various organisations ranged from £3,000 to £10,000. The amounts were small but the organisations were delighted to get the money because no other similar source of funding was available to them. We moved on from there when it was realised that substantial funding was required if the proper facilities were to be put in place and significant funding is now being provided.
There are now proper facilities in practically every parish in Ireland. When I played sport, I remember changing in ditches and under trees whether it was freezing cold or raining. Whenever I remind my son of that he only laughs at me but that was the reality. I played a good deal of basketball but a proper hall with the correct dimensions was not available to us. That was true not only of Waterford but of everywhere but today facilities have improved enormously. If we get our young people to play sport they are less likely to become involved in antisocial behaviour, with which anyone who has been involved with running teams will agree.
I am not sure of the status of the so-called “sunset clause” introduced some years ago, whereby the money for projects which did not proceed as planned was withdrawn. Will the Minister clarify the position in that regard? Discipline must be introduced to the system. If a body is allocated money, it must be spent within the time specified, otherwise it should be taken back and reallocated to the myriad organisations which would be delighted to get their hands on it.
Greater priority should be given to organisations located in RAPID areas. If we are serious about tackling the problems in such areas we must provide as much help and support as possible. The sharing of facilities should also be prioritised by this scheme. In rural areas particularly, GAA and soccer clubs often fundraise for their different needs while community councils in the parishes simultaneously fundraise for multi-sports halls. The different fundraising groups tend to hit the same people over and over again, which is nonsensical. A system should be put in place to pool the resources of the community and priority attached thereto by the Department in the context of any applications. Soccer pitches and GAA pitches are different sizes and can be separate but there is no reason dressing rooms, showers, toilets and halls cannot be shared. I would like to see an emphasis placed on this, not only in rural areas but also in expanding urban areas in towns and cities which await new facilities.
Senator Cummins will agree with my delight at the Government’s support of the Waterford regional sports centre to which €5.1 million has been allocated in recent years. Criticism was made earlier that the money had not begun to be spent. Nonetheless, it is a significant sum which will be used to support a number of clubs including soccer, athletics, basketball, badminton, tennis and so on. This is one example of where facilities are shared. While researching for this debate, I discovered that this practice has occurred in Dublin. For example, Templeogue United and St. Jude’s GAA club received a grant to provide a shared all-weather playing facility. That is the way in which we should proceed and such a practice should be encouraged and accorded priority.
Horse and greyhound racing are sports close to the Minister’s heart in respect of which facilities have improved tremendously in recent years. For example, the horseracing track in Tramore has developed considerably. Although this small track is not on the scale of the Curragh and Leopardstown, it is nonetheless marvellous that such facilities are developing. The Minister appeared to have some success the night he visited Waterford greyhound stadium in which fabulous facilities for dining out are provided. People do not even have to leave their seats to place a bet. Although I am not a great fan of greyhound racing, I attended the track recently with a regular patron. When he looked around, every table was full and he informed me that he could not see a single regular greyhound meeting patron. The facilities are encouraging more people to attend such meetings.
Sometimes it is shortsighted to criticise the grant aid which is made available in these areas because the horse racing and greyhound racing industries support a huge number of jobs. I commend their work and compliment the Minister on improving sporting facilities throughout the country. I hope this momentum will be maintained.
Mr. Cummins: I welcome the Minister to the House. The Government’s policy in respect of the provision of sporting facilities in recent years is a shambles, which fact everyone recognises in cases such as the Bertie bowl, Abbotstown and so on. The amount of money spent on consultants, land purchase and so on is appalling as many local sporting facilities could have been provided with the wasted money.
I will not criticise the GAA for not allowing Croke Park to be used for other sports because it will happen in time. Moreover, I compliment the reasoned leadership shown by the GAA president. I hope the GAA decides to allow the stadium to be used, otherwise, when national teams play soccer or rugby they could be forced to play their games outside the country, which would be a crying shame. I agree with Senator Kenneally that such a situation would not make for good PR for the GAA.
I am happy that the FAI and IRFU have now decided to undertake the necessary redevelopment of Lansdowne Road with Government assistance. If the FAI had been allowed to proceed with Eircom Park, it would have been up and running as a viable proposition at this stage. However, because of all the promises made about Abbotstown, the association did not proceed. As a former president of the schoolboys and youth committees of the FAI, it saddens me to see the state of the organisation after today’s announcement. There appears to be more politics within the organisation than exists in this House at times. The association needs to get its act together and I hope that happens sooner rather than later because people’s patience is beginning to wear thin.
Quite a sum of money has been made available in recent years for local facilities on which I commend the Minister. Senator Kenneally referred to the sports centre in Waterford, to which a sizeable grant has been allocated. However, the local authority must also come up with a few million euro. Facilities are shared between soccer, GAA, pitch and putt, a multipurpose sports hall, tennis courts and so on and are provided by the local authority for all sections of the community. Where local authorities provide such shared facilities, almost the entire grant should be made available to allow them to get on with their business and put in place necessary projects for all the people. There is too much bureaucracy involved in the allocation of grants to local sports clubs and I hope it will be reduced in some way. Obviously, from the Department’s point of view, there must be transparency, openness and accountability.
We must all aspire to promote sports of all codes. Sports organisations, particularly those working with children at local level, and schools are to be complimented. We can all talk about the national organisations but the people working with young people and marking the pitches are the unsung heroes and we should assist them in every possible way through the provision of grant aid for their local clubs and facilities.
Mr. U. Burke: I thank Senator Cummins for sharing his time and I welcome the Minister to the House. Having listened to the debate so far, it is clear that there are two dominant views. The first concerns the provision of sports facilities at national and international levels, and the other concerns their provision at community level. The greatest and most important aspect of sport is participation. It is important to have the widest possible participation at community level.
Over the years, many fine community buildings and complexes were provided at community level, both in urban and rural areas. The funding was largely raised by communities themselves and coupled with lottery funding supplied by various Ministers. The majority of these facilities are lying idle or are under-utilised, not because of a lack of interest in their utilisation but because of prohibitive insurance rates demanded by companies to provide cover for the trustees. The people lumbered with trusteeship of sports facilities cannot risk being uninsured because of the personal nature of the risk. The Minister should consider making grant aid available to pay insurance costs so community facilities could be made available at local level to various sports organisations and young people, be they from national or second level schools, bearing in mind that many national schools, and perhaps some second level schools, do not have any gym facilities except for a short period during the summer months. If this were done, many people would have far greater access to sports facilities.
The GAA has been mentioned more than any other sports organisation. It has provided facilities at national and community levels and is to be commended for doing so. Without its having done so, many children and adults who participate in our national games would not have sports facilities. Resources have been diverted downwards to provide facilities that did not exist some years ago.
It is a terrible tragedy that the Department of Education and Science did not spend the money that was available to it. If part of that money had been spent on the provision of facilities at national school level as part of a combined or group effort, younger people would have much greater access to sports facilities.
The Minister, as a former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, will realise that crime can occur if young people do not have the opportunity to vent their energies through participation in some sport or activity other than lying around waiting for something to happen.
Mr. Dardis: There is nothing new in recognising the value of sport in society. The Romans used the phrase “mens sano in corpore sano”, a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is as true today as it was when first used and maybe even more so. It is important that young people and adults play some kind of sport and this is why all sports should be promoted by the Government. There is an important health dimension to be considered and this has been recognised by successive Governments, including the current one.
Senator John Paul Phelan made an important statement on the provision of playgrounds. Over the course of several years, I engaged in a campaign in Kildare County Council to expand the provision of playgrounds. Some have been provided but county councils in general have been very lackadaisical in this respect. I encountered all sorts of excuses for not doing a job that should be done, including the cost of insurance.
We can compete at the very highest levels internationally in many sports. We do so successfully in golf, racing and other equestrian sports, rugby, cycling, soccer and even angling, which I regard as a sport. One of the great success stories, which many sports organisations could consider with a view to furthering their own activities, concerns the provision of facilities at greyhound racing tracks. It was achieved very simply through the provision of a basic model at each track. In other words, the facilities are very similar at many of the tracks and the size tends to be the same everywhere. Sports organisations should learn that a standard plan can be implemented at all facilities. Everyone involved in the greyhound racing developments has done a wonderful job. The chairman and Minister must be congratulated. It is a model for other sports.
During the summer there was much talk about the Olympics. I noted almost daily that RTE correspondents were almost disappointed if there was not another failure about which to complain. It must be said that those who get to the Olympics achieve a remarkable goal and are among the world’s elite, yet we are disappointed if they do not win a gold medal. I suppose this says something about our expectations. It is wonderful if one of our athletes gets to the Olympics and I know the Olympic Council of Ireland and the Minister are working to this end, but we need to have a sense of proportion.
The almost daily announcements on RTE about the failures of our athletes occurred because it had built them up in the first place. This is unfair on the athletes and everybody associated with them. Some of the greatest athletes in the world became such by running up and down sand dunes in New Zealand, for example. They did not need stadia or facilities. Bearing this in mind, consider the Ethiopians and what one Christian Brother was able to do for athletes in Kenya.
I agree with Senators Ryan and Mansergh that people are too liberal in telling the GAA what it should do. We should not tell it what to do but we are entitled to have a view. It is up to the organisation to make its own decisions but it would be marvellous to see Ireland stuff England in rugby in Croke Park. Even Michael Cusack would get up and applaud it. That is what I want to see. It would be most unfortunate if an Irish team were forced to play in Cardiff during the reconstruction of Lansdowne Road, not only from the sporting point of view but also from the financial point of view.
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