A po­lit­i­cal foot­ball that’s used to be­ing passed around

Sports crosses its fin­gers yet again as the min­is­te­rial merry-go-round gets an­other spin

The Irish Times - - Sports Weekend - Malachy Clerkin

The min­is­ter for sport stood at the top of the room and gave his usual min­is­ter for sport speech. Politi­cians gen­er­ally do lit­tle to hide their en­nui at hav­ing to plough through these things but it was a part of the job that al­ways seemed to en­liven Michael Ring. In the busi­ness of grab­bing a mi­cro­phone and froth­ing forth on the joys of sport to a cap­tive au­di­ence, there was no bet­ter man.

The oc­ca­sion was the an­nounce­ment of a round of grants to be handed out un­der the Go For Life scheme. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t know about un­less it was your busi­ness to know about it – around ¤300k an­nu­ally put aside to fund pro­grammes for phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity for older peo­ple.

No­body gets rich out of it but it’s the sort of thing that helps keep an aer­o­bics class for the over 60s go­ing or funds an out­ing for a men’s shed or an ICA group.

Big or small never mat­tered to the Ringer, though. This was about far more than the ¤290 for this ac­tive re­tire­ment group or the ¤400 for that lo­cal ten­nis club. It was about the role sport was play­ing in keep­ing the na­tion’s spir­its high. It was about re­mind­ing ev­ery­one that no mat­ter what age you are, sport will still be there for you.

His au­di­ence, made up mostly of se­niors, lis­tened along as he reached his crescendo. “It’s great to see so many of you here,” Ring said, voice soar­ing. “And with the help of God, hope­fully we’ll see some of you back next year!” Fa­cepalms all round.

For all his flaws, Ring did at least want the job when he got it. By con­trast, any en­thu­si­asm newly-in­stalled min­is­ter Dara Cal­leary shows for the gig now will have been ginned up for ap­pear­ances. Cal­leary spent the early part of the week grous­ing about not get­ting a se­nior min­istry and ended it be­ing thrown the bone of sport and the Gaeltacht to go along with the post of chief whip. A thin­ner skinned port­fo­lio than sport might take of­fence at be­ing such an ob­vi­ous af­ter­thought.

Hot-de­sk­ing

But sport is well used to it at this stage. In the tan­gled hus­tle of cab­i­net, sport will gen­er­ally find it­self hot-de­sk­ing. It fits in where it’s told and doesn’t speak un­less it’s spo­ken to. It sits there beaver­ing qui­etly away un­til the next time, on the next whim, when it gath­ers its bags and bag­gage and trudges to a dif­fer­ent cor­ner of the ta­ble to start again. Sport is nearly al­ways start­ing again.

On this go-round, it has found it­self with no fewer than five bed­fel­lows in Cather­ine Mar­tin’s newly-imag­ined Depart­ment for Me­dia, Tourism, Arts, Cul­ture, Sport and the Gaeltacht.

Ev­ery­body has had their fun with the un­wieldy ti­tle – hat-tip to He­lena Ní Rócháin from west Kerry for her “Min­is­ter for Me­dia, Cul­ture, Arts, Tourism, Sport and the Gaeltacht and the tree in the hole and the hole in the bog and the bog down in the val­ley-o.”

It’s a long way, right enough, from the mid-1980s when sport fell un­der the aegis of the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Cork TD Donal Creed spent four years as the min­is­ter of State for school build­ings and sport. Sec­ond billing to school build­ings in a ju­nior min­istry – there has never been any dan­ger of sport get­ting no­tions about its place in the world.

In a sense, how­ever, the come-all-ye na­ture of Mar­tin’s depart­ment need not be such a dis­as­ter for sport. Though it looks like an al­pha­bet soup of a thing, the depart­ment is cru­cially free of one of the be­he­moths of gov­ern­ment. In the past, sport has been var­i­ously lumped in with ed­u­ca­tion, en­vi­ron­ment and trans­port, all of them with birthright claims to gar­gan­tuan slices of the pie.

Through­out the past decade un­der Shane Ross, Paschal Dono­hue and Leo Varad­kar, sport and tourism had

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Sport’s for­tunes in gov­ern­ment are gen­er­ally de­pen­dent on two fac­tors – the in­ter­est of the taoiseach and the heft of the min­is­ters

to find their place in a port­fo­lio dom­i­nated by trans­port. The an­nual state fund­ing sub­ven­tion for pub­lic trans­port came to ¤287 mil­lion in 2019, for ex­am­ple. The equiv­a­lent di­rect fund­ing for a ll of sport in the same pe­riod was ¤32 mil­lion, up from ¤20 mil­lion in 2018. An ac­count­ing er­ror in the trans­port bud­get would fund a hefty chunk of what sport needs to get by from year to year.

Sport’s for­tunes in gov­ern­ment are gen­er­ally de­pen­dent on two fac­tors – the in­ter­est of the taoiseach and the heft of the min­is­ters. Even if you class Ber­tie Ah­ern as a ve­nal, grab­bing pop­ulist, the fact re­mains that those as­pects of his stew­ard­ship did sport no harm. He el­e­vated sport to a se­nior min­istry in 1997 and es­tab­lished the su­per­struc­ture around which Ab­bot­stown, Sport Ire­land and fund­ing have been built over the past two decades.

It would be a stretch to say we were al­ways blessed by the cal­i­bre of his ap­point­ments, all the same. Jim McDaid was okay at get­ting it off the ground but ran into trou­ble near the end of his time when he called peo­ple who die by sui­cide “self­ish bas­tards”. John O’Donoghue was gen­er­ally seen as a strong voice for sport and good at get­ting fund­ing for projects. Un­til he be­came rather too good at it and went mad on his ex­penses.

Rub­ber chicken

The sports brief en­tails a lot of rub­ber chicken, of­ten more than the in­cum­bent can en­dure. Ahead of an awards lunch in the Shel­bourne one year, the min­is­ter in ques­tion let it be known that he was too busy to at­tend – only to be found down­stairs in the ho­tel get­ting a hair­cut while the lunch was on­go­ing. Sadly for him, the bar­bers is on the way to the jacks in the Shel­bourne and he was even­tu­ally pre­vailed upon to come up and stand in for a photo.

The dark­est years for the sport brief were be­tween 2007 and 2011, with a hotch­potch of Fianna Fáil square pegs sent to the round hole of sport for want of some­thing to do with them.

These were the Séa­mus Bren­nan/ Mar­tin Cullen/Mary Hanafin days when a com­bi­na­tion of a bru­tal re­ces­sion and min­is­te­rial dis­in­ter­est meant sport found it hard to get any sort of foothold in gov­ern­ment.

Cullen’s most no­table con­tri­bu­tion was to stand up in the Dáil in the wake of the Bei­jing Olympics and de­clare

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In the tan­gled hus­tle of cab­i­net, sport gen­er­ally finds it­self hot-de­sk­ing. It fits in where it’s told and doesn’t speak un­less it’s spo­ken to

that it was point­less for Ir­ish hope­fuls for Lon­don 2012 to con­tinue train­ing in Ire­land, even with world-class fa­cil­i­ties. As for Hanafin, she dirt­ied her bib on her fi­nal day in of­fice by ap­point­ing her party’s di­rec­tor of elec­tions to the board of the Sports Coun­cil.

Ul­ti­mately, Fianna Fáil gonna Fianna Fáil.

Un­der Fine Gael, sport got bumped down to a ju­nior min­istry again after 14 years as a full cab­i­net post. Ring came in un­der Varad­kar to do the day-to-day stuff. The Mayo TD’s in­nate par­ish-pump­ness was off­set by the fact that Varad­kar was des­tined for big­ger things and so sport tended to do okay. Much the same hap­pened when Dono­hue took over. There’s a lot to be said for hav­ing a cab­i­net heavy­weight in the role, re­gard­less of their lim­ited in­ter­est in sport.

Speak to peo­ple in the sport­ing bod­ies and they’ll tell you that Ross was ac­tu­ally far from the worst of them. His count­less pub­lic gaffes – Dom­i­nant Pus­pure, Thomas Barry, Dave Kear­ney and so on – made him look far more out of touch than he was. He didn’t par­tic­u­larly know his sport but he did know fund­ing and he did know gov­er­nance. He took more of a vic­tory lap than he de­served in the mat­ter of John De­laney’s fall but he at least had the sense to pop his sail and take ad­van­tage of the way the wind was blow­ing.

Mak­ing a goof of it

Cal­leary, by his own ad­mis­sion, had no de­signs on the post he finds him­self in. Still, he’s there now and his sit­u­a­tion in life will only im­prove by mak­ing a go of it. For sport, the op­ti­mistic view is that it will be no harm to have not one but two deputy lead­ers of Gov­ern­ment par­ties in charge. Es­pe­cially since (a) Cal­leary has been uni­ver­sally ac­cepted as hav­ing been shafted and thus could have some lee­way to ask for things and (b) Mar­tin could soon be the leader of the Greens and thus could have even more lee­way to say yes.

The pes­simistic view is that we’re in a health cri­sis with no ap­par­ent end and headed for a re­ces­sion whose depth can only be guessed at and sport tends to get for­got­ten very quickly when ei­ther of those sit­u­a­tions abounds.

Best we can do is cross our fin­gers, Ringer-style, and hope to God some of us will make it back next year.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: ROLLINGNEW­S; INPHO

For­mer min­is­ters for sport (clock­wise from main): Shane Ross; Mary Hanafin; John O’Donoghue; Michael Ring; Séa­mus Bren­nan; JimMcDaid and Mar­tin Cullen.

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