Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement

Cross-Border Support: Special Olympics Ireland

11:25 am

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the committee I welcome Mr. Matt English, chief executive, Special Olympics Ireland; Mr. Peter O'Brien, director of training and volunteers; Mr. John McKernan, chairman of Special Olympics Ulster; Mr. Shaun Cassidy, regional director of Special Olympics Ulster; and Mr. Liam McGarry, a family member with Special Olympics Ulster.

The committee will hear about the work the group does providing an all-year programme of sport and training activities to thousands of athletes. We are particularly interested in the group’s North-South dimension in co-operation and integrated strategies which are part of the Good Friday Agreement.

I advise witnesses that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their remarks. Witnesses are directed that only comments and evidence in respect of the subject matter of this meeting are to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. English to make his opening statement.

Mr. Matt English:

I thank the Chairman for his introduction and the invitation to meet with the committee to consider the health and well-being of persons with an intellectual disability and cross-Border supports in this regard.

Special Olympics Ireland was founded in 1978 by a group of volunteers and run on a voluntary basis for several years from both sides of the Border. It is an all-island sporting and voluntary organisation with more than 10,000 registered athletes supported by 25,000 registered and vetted volunteers. Their activities compliment other services and supports provided by Governments on both sides for the benefit of people with an intellectual disability. Over a quarter of the population on the island with an intellectual disability have the opportunity to avail of and are participants in the Special Olympics programme. This makes it the largest programme that caters for and involves persons with an intellectual or learning disability.

Special Olympics is most frequently identified for the major events it hosts. The world games, for example, that we hosted in 2003 spring to mind. However, the strength of Special Olympics is what it delivers every week in sport and training activities and much more. It is administered through the five regions - Connacht, Munster, Leinster, Ulster and the greater Dublin area.

Special Olympics is a global programme with 220 registered national programmes. About 2% of the world population with an intellectual disability avails of the programme, while here on the island of Ireland it is 25%. We have the strongest programme and the highest level of participation, with just under 400 community-based clubs run on a voluntary basis. It is a multi-sport organisation offering training and competition in 15 Olympic-type sports. We are always looking to add other sports as resources become available. Special Olympics is focused on promoting individual integration into local communities and giving as much an opportunity as possible for our athletes to develop and achieve. It is a professionally run organisation with a strong board and adheres to best practice in codes of governance. We leverage our volunteers so much. If a government tried to deliver this programme without the support of such a wide volunteer group, it would be at significant cost.

Our programmes recognise a range of issues for people with intellectual disabilities and their families. Sports provision is key but we are focused on issues such as health promotion and education. Our vision is simple. We want to ensure that every person with an intellectual disability or learning difficulty has the opportunity to participate in a community club and achieve life-changing experiences, increased skills, confidence and joy.

The Irish Government has provided support over a long period of time and we would not be where we are as an organisation without it. Since 2008 the core funding we receive from the Irish Government through the Irish Sports Council has been cut from €3 million to €1.2 million. This represents a 59% cut in core funding. This reduction, along with the macroeconomic conditions and the difficulty of fund-raising in the current environment, means the programme we offer is not sustainable in the long term and we are significantly dipping into reserves that were built up in better times.

By contrast, since 2011 the Northern Ireland Executive has provided significant funding and funds 68% of the programme costs of Special Olympics Ireland in Northern Ireland. Given the contribution Special Olympics makes to State policies on both sides of the Border in respect of sport, health, education, social inclusion and the promotion of volunteering, it is time for the Irish Government to widen the funding base to support SOI, similar to the provision in Northern Ireland. This will better reflect the role SOI plays in ensuring our athletes with an intellectual disability reach their full potential.

In this presentation my colleagues will set out how in 2011 they convinced the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland that Special Olympics is about much more than just sport and why athletes with an intellectual disability deserved their support. I introduce Mr. Liam McGarry, who has a sister with an intellectual disability and is a long-time volunteer with Special Olympics, to briefly outline how the case was established for cross-departmental multi-annual funding for Special Olympics in Northern Ireland.

11:35 am

Mr. Liam McGarry:

The focus is on athletes, and rightly so. However, I will give my experience as a non-athlete. My sister was born in 1987 with Down's syndrome and that changed things for us. It was a learning experience and a very beneficial experience. In 2002 I understood what Special Olympics was for the first time, although I knew my sister, Una, went to gymnastics every Tuesday night. I went to the Dublin games and began to see the extent of it. It involves families and volunteers, and I began to see the sense of occasion and the social elements.

I went to the Special Olympics World Games as a volunteer. I was involved in other sports organisations. Although Belfast played a small part, it was still a key part of the towns programme. In Belfast we had a team of 400 and it was probably one of the best weeks of my life. That spirit that was gained there was crucial and it came back again when the Special Olympics National Games came to Belfast in 2006. That was the first time Belfast has held such a big multi-sport event. Last year we hosted the World Police and Fire Games. That was down to the Special Olympics originally creating events there.

For the 2006 games we looked for volunteers. The first time we went for volunteers we had 30 at the event. We held five events at the City Hall. At the penultimate event we had to shut the doors of the main room because we had too many people. At the last event we had to shut the doors of City Hall because there were so many people, building on the goodwill. There was a momentum there. After the 2003 games this momentum had been lost. Some people were keen and got involved in clubs, but the movement in Ulster was very small so there was no model to facilitate all this goodwill.

In 2006 we had built up 6,000 volunteers. There was such goodwill and there is an obvious need - I will not go through the statistics - but there was a need not to let the opportunity go, as we had done in 2003. There was momentum with Special Olympics Ulster. It was very clear in Ulster that Special Olympics Ireland was doing a great job at the world games and had a good structure. As has been mentioned, it is world-class. Northern Ireland was severely under-represented. We have this goodwill and these large numbers of volunteers but we need some mechanism to utilise all these strengths. A strategy was evolved for Special Olympics Ulster to plan how it will work. This became a plan people could get behind.

We started approaching the various governing bodies and it quickly became apparent that this is bigger than sport, with aspects including goodwill, visitors, volunteers and education. We went to the Department with responsibility for sport initially and, speaking to politicians, there was an opportunity to present to various Ministers. In a first for Northern Ireland, five Departments came to witness a presentation. We started in 2007 after the national games. The presentation to Ministers was in 2008 and in May 2009 we began a business case process. A business case is a document that allows the Government to fund above a certain amount, and that is standard across all Departments. Once one Department had taken the lead, it allowed us to create the business case which other Departments would then accept.

Further analysis of the business case brought us to 2011, when there was funding. As with every other aspect of public funding, our business case had to show clear targets, a clear plan and value for money. Sport had to take the lead, and once the case was proved it went to other Departments for a contribution. Five Departments decided to contribute on an equal basis. That model has been in place for four years.

I will hand over to my colleague Mr. John McKernan, who has been involved with Special Olympics since 2006 and is chairperson of Special Olympics Ulster.

Mr. John McKernan:

I thank the Chairman for having us here today. It feels a little strange for me to be here because up to approximately a year ago I was a civil servant, a principal officer in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, so I have some sympathy with my colleagues over on this side of the Chamber. I retired a year ago and that has given me much more time to be involved in Special Olympics. I got involved in 2006 when the games came to Belfast, as Mr. McGarry said. In 2007 I started a basketball club in Newtownards. Since then my wife has become involved as club secretary and my daughter has become involved in a help-the-athlete programme. It has become a family affair for us.

I will talk about the impact the funding has had on Special Olympics in Ulster and how we manage that funding. I will try not to go into too much detail. We have an athlete leadership programme. Special Olympics is not just about sports. It is about building a better person in the community. Athlete leadership is about giving them an opportunity to become involved in other things - for example, speaking at public events. At our AGM in Dublin an athlete does a speech. Athletes can also get involved in other small committees. One of the quotes I got from an athlete in conversation was: "I now have the confidence to speak in front of a crowded room. Before Special Olympics I would never have been able to do this." That is the difference the athlete leadership programme has made for our athletes. We also have a families programme and that is very important because Special Olympics is a family. It is very important that we do what we can for the families. We run social events for the families and share various things with them. It is important that families get involved, and they do. In my club we provide tea, coffee and biscuits for the family members who come along. Some of them see it as an opportunity for a bit of respite because they can leave their athletes with us in safe hands for an hour or so and go away and do a bit of shopping or whatever. However, quite a few of them stay and have a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit. That gives the parents an opportunity to talk to each other and learn from each other's experiences, something they do not often have the opportunity to do.

Families are a very important part of it. We also have a families representative on the regional committee who can bring forward ideas from the families on developing the programme. Our volunteers are an important part of what we do. Mr. McGarry and I are both volunteers. We are developing our volunteers all the time and we have a huge database of volunteers. Many volunteers run our clubs and help to run our events. It is a time commitment. Some volunteers cannot give up time to run a club every week but they can give up time to run an event on a Saturday. A number of volunteers are trained in club management. We have extended the Clubmark NI scheme, which is supported by Sport NI, to the volunteers and we are also extending it to the clubs. It is a standard they can achieve.

Since we received our funding 376 volunteers have qualified as coaches through recognised bodies such as Swim Ireland and Basketball Northern Ireland, and we have recruited 450 volunteers which is approximately 150 a year. We have a volunteer support centre in the Special Olympics Ulster office. Volunteers come along on a Wednesday or Thursday at whatever time suits and help organise events through making phone calls to other volunteers. We depend very much on our volunteers and do what we can to bring them to the required standard.

Education is an important part of what we do. We have a programme whereby we visit schools to tell people about Special Olympics and what it does and engage with second level pupils some of whom have become volunteers because of the education programme. We also have 11 clubs which operate within the schools which is great to see. Towards the end of last year we had an awareness week in which 12 schools took part. Another important part of education which may not come to mind is we have part of a module on the Police Service of Northern Ireland recruitment course in which we tell new recruits about Special Olympics. It is not just to tell them Special Olympics exists and what we do; it means when they finish college and become constables on the beat they know something about intellectual disabilities, and if they come across people with intellectual disabilities they are better prepared to deal with the situation.

A total of 28 clubs are involved in health promotion. This is more than telling people what they should and should not eat, and there has been much in the news recently about avoiding sugar. It is also about personal hygiene and looking after eyesight. When one hears about health promotion one thinks of diets but it is much more than this. We have planned a number of events to support Team Ulster, which will go to the Limerick games in June, with regard to health promotion and how they can look after themselves. Two doctors from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast work with us. They are doing a study on mental health. They will attend some of our events and will speak to family members about how to recognise certain conditions in mental health.

It goes without saying we are developing our clubs. We have ten new clubs and three more in the pipeline. We are raising standards through the Clubmark NI process. It is all about sport and 336 athletes take part in development days. Not all athletes when they start Special Olympics can immediately play the game and compete. Some of them have a very low skill level. We have development days to develop these skills. We have a motor activities training programme as some athletes cannot even dribble a ball properly. We get them to sit down to lift beanbags to develop and eye co-ordination. We develop them from there to a point they can play a game and eventually be part of a team. This is all very important.

With regard to events, we have focused on our volunteers and trained them on event management. We have become more professional about organising events, equipment, signage, training people to use PA systems, and health and safety. This all came about as a result of the funding we received. We could not have done much of this without the funding. Mr. McGarry spoke about how we obtained funding and I want to give a brief overview of how it is managed. Five departments are involved which come together in the interdepartmental oversight group, which also includes Mr. English, Mr. Cassidy and me from Special Olympics. We meet twice a year. The group has set a number of key performance indicators for us and we have been working on them over the three years we have received funding. I am glad to state that at this point in time all of the indicators are green under the traffic light system. We had a number of amber indicators, and one or two in the red when we started, but I am glad to say they are now all green. We are meeting all of our key performance indicators. These include indicators on the quality of what we do and extending our reach, which is important with regard to the old community divide issue. We now have clubs in east Belfast which, for an organisation based in Dublin is quite an achievement. Athletes travel from as far as Letterkenny to Belfast take part in some of our sports. We have extended the reach quite considerably.

Other key performance indicators are with regard to families, who are much more involved in what we do, and volunteers, who play a very important part of what we do. We not alone get young people involved as athletes but also as volunteers through schools. We also have key performance indicators with regard to the health programme and operating in a safe and secure environment with people who have learning disabilities.

The funding we received from the departments has allowed us not only to sustain the programme, which we could not have done before, but also to grow it in Ulster. To give an indication of the level of trust we have, when we started working with the departments they did not know that much about Special Olympics Ireland, what it was and how we manage our finances. In the initial year of funding we received 40% of the funding up-front after which we received a further 50% and 10% was held back until the end. At the time Special Olympics was unknown and there was a high risk in the view of the departments. I am pleased to state we have developed trust and a very good relationship with the departments through the interdepartmental oversight group meetings. For the year 2014 to 2015 and we have received 90% of our funding up-front and 10% has been held back. This is an indication of our relationship and the confidence the Departments now has in us and the programme we deliver. This gives us the ability to plan ahead. One cannot plan unless one knows one has funding. It is four year funding and we are able to plan to develop our programme over the four years. We are very hopeful the departments will extend the funding for a further year and they have asked us to start work on a business case for the next four years. It all looks as positive as it can be.

There are huge benefits North and South, not only for Special Olympics but also for other organisations in the communities. Mr. McGarry mentioned the World Police and Fire Games. Quite a number of our volunteers also volunteered at the games. Our athletes carried the torch for the opening ceremony, which was a great PR exercise for us and worked very well. A film was made following the torch from Dublin through the North where it was handed over to Dame Mary Peters in the arena for the opening ceremony. There are also benefits for health, education, social development and cross-community issues. Athletes do not care from where they come from or what they do, they just get on with their sport, which committee members will see if they have an opportunity to visit any of our clubs.

The athletes tell a far better story than any of us. They state Special Olympics has changed their lives and given them much more than sport. They state it has given them confidence and self-belief and moments they will remember forever.

One says, "The healthy athlete programme saved my life. I have become fit and developed true friends".

Special Olympics is much more than sport and should be recognised for that. When a parent brought their child along when we started the club, the child hung onto his mother and would not let go of her. He was very nervous, but he gradually developed and started to take part in basketball. His mother said to me one night, "Jordan would never have done that before. I could not get him to do anything at school." He went to a special needs school and would not do anything else in the school, but the Special Olympics just clicked with him and he got going. There is an inter-club basketball competition on Saturday in Derry and my team is travelling there to take part in it. I received a text from that mother recently saying that she and one of her friends had a really difficult decision to make because they had been invited to afternoon tea at the Titanic in Belfast and they had the basketball in Derry on Saturday. I will leave the committee to think on which they chose.

11:55 am

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Mr. English and his colleagues and thank them for their detailed presentation. They outlined a vision - which is not just confined to sport, although that is obviously very important - of the wider benefits that accrue from participation in Special Olympics. When we think of the Special Olympics, all of us think of the iconic event in Croke Park in 2003 and the huge buy-in and positivity that was generated in towns and villages throughout the island. If I recall correctly, approximately 30,000 volunteers participated and assisted the participants from 150 countries. It was a really fabulous time for all of the participants and for all Irish people when the event was hosted here. However, it is not just about identification with the major events, but the work that goes on each day in so many parishes, towns and villages throughout the country. The people who are both participating in the sport and helping in a voluntary capacity deserve great credit.

Is there good access to public sporting facilities and recreational facilities that are in public ownership or the ownership of other sporting organisations? The witness mentioned the more challenging environment with regard to raising funds in society generally, and the reduction in the Irish Sports Council grant. Does Special Olympics Ireland get funding in this State from the local sports partnerships? They were established five or six years ago on a county basis.

The witnesses outlined the broader educational and community remit very well. The education and training boards have replaced the vocational education committees, VECs. To my knowledge, over the years the VECs had a sporting and youth grants element in their expenditure each year. Does Special Olympics Ireland manage to get support from the local sports partnerships, which are under the remit of the local authorities, and from the sporting grants disbursed by the education and training boards?

The vision the witnesses outlined is very commendable and I compliment them on their excellent work and the great support they give to so many worthy people throughout this island and, indeed, internationally.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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Like Deputy Smith, I welcome the witnesses and thank them for attending and divulging the excellent work that is done across the island. It is a great example to have representatives from both Ulster and the South present. Following the previous debate, it is brilliant to see that the common good is central and that both organisations are working for that. The reason we are here today is to consider how we can develop that further and how the witnesses believe we can be of benefit in progressing it.

It is important to note the difference in the way the organisations are funded in the North and South and the much higher percentage of the funding that is covered in the North compared with the South. Last year I proposed a motion in the Seanad on the tenth anniversary of the Special Olympics. As Deputy Smith said, that was a landmark and it is something everybody in the country will always remember. However, that was ten years ago, and we must look beyond that to the future. One of the initial subjects we discussed when the witnesses appeared before the committee two years ago was the origin of the funding in the South and the fact that it is directed through the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Irish Sports Council.

There is a huge need for cross-departmental funding. It is not simply the responsibility of one Department. When I put down the motion for debate in the Seanad, there was a discussion as to whether it should be taken by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Health or the Department of Education and Skills. Everybody debated the issue, but I see this as the responsibility of every Department. That is an area, Chairman, that I would like the committee to take further if possible.

With regard to North-South co-operation, which we are discussing today, and where it can proceed, the Departments involved in the North include the offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Departments of Education, Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Social Development, and Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is co-ordinated by Sport Northern Ireland. There are many more Departments involved in it and it is a far wider process. We should examine that model and try to introduce it here so we can have a similar funding model, given that it is so successful in the North. Has Mr. English had discussions with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport about spreading the responsibility further and bringing it into the Department of Health? Have initiatives been made? I have made representations on it. What type of reaction or response did he get? As regards bringing it to the North-South Ministerial Council, I have spoken about this to the Tánaiste, who has voiced his support for it. How do the witnesses suggest we progress this further?

I could speak on this all day. I have a vested interest in that I was involved with the Special Olympics long before I became a Member of the Seanad, so I can vouch for the excellent work that is done each day and week. I wish the witnesses every success with the forthcoming national games in Limerick and the world games next year. I would love to see more coverage of Special Olympics games. The team last year in the Winter Olympics did exceptional work, but much of that was hidden because there was not the same media coverage as is given to the Olympics.

Finally, the one thing that is most common to the North and South is the volunteers. There is the same amount of effort and dedication North and South of the Border, which shows that the country is united in helping people with a disability.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Senator. I also thank you for insisting that both representative groups be invited to appear before the committee.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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There are probably some people watching this in their homes and wondering why the witnesses are appearing before this committee. The Good Friday Agreement, Weston Park and the other agreements were about building an inclusive society, and clearly the work the witnesses are doing is of huge importance in that regard. We are also talking about building on the full potential of people.

The previous speaker referred to cross-departmental funding. Relying on different Departments creates problems. I know from experience that many Departments try to direct requests for funding to another Department. That is the nature of the way things are at present. The organisation is creating a safe, inclusive environment which will develop friendships and eliminate sectarianism.

The Government funding of €3 million for Special Olympics Ireland was cut to €1.2 million. While the organisation has managed, it must have caused major difficulties. Will Mr. English outline in detail how the cuts have affected its work? There seems to be a disparity in the funding North and South.

My memories of the Special Olympics are associated with Nelson Mandela's involvement. A friend of mine, Mr. Seán O'Farrell from Tallaght, who has since died, was involved in Special Olympics Ireland. One of the proudest days of my life was the fantastic night in Croke Park at the Special Olympics, and those who were there will never forget it for the length of their days.

I congratulate the team from Special Olympics Ireland on the great work they do. How do we turn goodwill into action? How can we as a committee help them in their work?

12:05 pm

Mr. Mark Durkan:

Deputies Seán Crowe and Brendan Smith referred to the Special Olympics in Croke Park in 2003. I can remember coming to Dublin, driving behind a growing phalanx of police motorcycles. They were not escorting me but I happened to be in the queue of traffic, and as we passed each town more and more cars joined the line of traffic. They were assisting those who were involved in that spectacular night. Other speakers have referred to the quality, ethic and strong commitment of the volunteers. I have seen athletes in the Special Olympics who have gone on to become volunteers, and do so very effectively, during Derry's year as UK City of Culture. Some of them were ambassadors for the city of culture. It is clear that these volunteers gained the confidence, experience and social capacity to do that work from their experience at the Special Olympics. In so many ways the Special Olympics provided not just a physical outlet and pastime for people but was part of their emancipation. It has equipped and involved them and made them able to represent the civic representatives in different capacities. That is of major importance.

In the run-up to the Special Olympics in 2003, I was the then Minister for Finance and Personnel and was asked if there would be funding from the Northern authorities. I got into some trouble by more or less pre-indicating that there would be money in the executive programme fund and as far as I was concerned at least €1 million would be allocated to the Special Olympics. The good thing was that we were able to make commitments at that stage at the level of the Executive rather than waiting for an allocation from various Departments. A few years ago, I spoke on the case for funding on the Northern side for the current phase. The discussion was on how to frame the task and Special Olympics Ireland answered that very much by framing the offer to the various Departments, avoiding the problem of having to busk around the different Departments hoping to catch a bit of money here, a wee bit there and a bit of slippage somewhere else. The idea of having pre-agreement on the contributors to the basket is a very important model. I think many others will be jealous, not just in this House but also in the North. It is not easy to get cross-departmental funding. In this case, the worth of the work the Special Olympics is able to do and the outcomes it is able to show is compelling and is in the policy interests of so many different Departments.

Photo of Seán ConlanSeán Conlan (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the witnesses and have a number of questions for them. I understand that funding from Northern Ireland amounted to £2.5 million over the four-year period, equating to £625,000 per annum. I understand that funding from the Government in the Republic has increased this year from €1.2 million to €1.4 million. Is that correct?

In terms of the reserves of Special Olympics Ireland, is there a large reserve in place, or are there financial difficulties? The cross-Border element is very important to me as I am a Deputy for Monaghan. Can the chairman of the Ulster Special Olympics, Mr. John McKernan, expand into Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal, as is the case with Ulster Rugby and various other organisations, or are these Ulster counties dependent on the input from Special Olympics Ireland? It was mentioned that clubs from Letterkenny go to Belfast; does Special Olympics in Ulster have an outreach programme in the Border counties?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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Most of the contributions were observations, and the witnesses do not have to reply to all observations, but I invite Mr. Matt English to comment, and Mr. John McKernan might give an Ulster perspective. I too am interested in the response to Deputy Conlan's question on Counties Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal. Are these counties in Ulster or not in Ulster? I would appreciate specific clarification.

Mr. Matt English:

I will deal with queries in the order in which they arose. Deputy Smith raised the use of facilities. We are very fortunate that we do not invest in capital facilities outside the programme. We get to utilise local facilities in the community, North and South. Some of the clubs may pay a small charge for the use of the facilities but, by and large, when we host area, regional or national events the charge is heavily discounted when we pay for the use of the facilities.

The local sports partnerships work very closely in developing the programme with our regional development officers. They may give funding to local clubs such as the GAA or the rugby club when they are raising money for their own local clubs. That is very well integrated.

Special Olympics Ireland must always look at the opportunity to apply for grants. To paraphrase Mark Durkan, MP, we have to busk around. That is not ideal because we would prefer to put our energy into the delivery of the programme rather than continually looking for small pockets of funds here and there. We must, however, do that.

Senator Moran raised the issue of multi-departmental funding. Again, the model has worked so well in Northern Ireland. We recognise that we deal with the lead Department in this regard, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The other Departments effectively channel the funding through the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure because they recognise that we deliver much more than sport.

We are always reaching out - as we have done through Senator Moran, who has been a great advocate for Special Olympics Ireland - through this opportunity and other opportunities in various forums to explain that we need funding from other Departments. We are constantly reaching out in that regard. We simply do not get enough coverage, particularly with the national games due to take place in June. Any help we can get in that regard is really important.

With regard to reserves and funding, the Northern Ireland Executive has given a four-year commitment of £2.3 million, which works out at over £600,000 per annum. Costs vary from year to year because the cost base moves up and down. The core funding comes from the Irish Sport Council and amounts to €1.2 million. We have been given an additional allocation of €200,000 towards the cost of the Ireland games, which is an additional cost. The Ireland games will cost roughly €2 million in total, so the council has contributed 10% to the additional cost of hosting the games.

The organisation is fortunate to have reserves due to years of good management, but that reserve has been depleted by under €1 million in 2012. We are currently preparing the draft accounts for 2013 and expect, based on estimates, that the reserves will be depleted by a further €1 million. The accounts are available on our website and the reserve is quoted. The board of Special Olympics Ireland wants us to retain one year's costs in reserve. We work in a four-year programme so we have already committed to sending athletes to the world games in Los Angeles next year. The current reserves are equivalent to the cost of running the programme for one year, but we make strategic decisions all the time. Therefore, we always reach out to ensure that we can sustain the programme and continue to expand it, because there is definite demand from stakeholders to do so.

The board is in the process of conducting a review of the organisation because the current cost base will have to downsize unless we get further funding in the medium term. Downsizing will have a significant impact across a range of levels, including our ability to reach out, open new clubs and deliver the help programme and the athlete leadership programme that Mr. McKernan spoke about. Mr. Mark Durkan, MP, mentioned the athlete volunteer programme, which is a great development. It would not have been possible without investment in an athlete leadership programme. Those are benefits which are outside the core area of sport. We simply will not be able to give energy and time to those benefits if we do not have funding.

I am not sure if I have dealt will all of the queries raised. Deputy Crowe also mentioned reserves and restructuring. I wish to refer to a relevant point he raised about multi-departmental funding. Such funding is a challenge and adds extra administration. The Northern Ireland Executive has got around the problem by having its Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure as the lead agent. It is really about Departments recognising that they have an obligation to support what is delivered by the Special Olympics programme and assessing how to make the processes as efficient as possible for everyone involved.

I shall hand over to Mr. McKernan regarding other elements.

12:15 pm

Mr. John McKernan:

I will respond to the point made by Deputy Conlan about the cross-Border element of funding. We support the Ulster programme across the nine counties and we have 1,300 volunteers and 15 clubs that span the three counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. All of the programmes and benefits from the funding, including Sport Northern Ireland, coach education and courses for volunteers, take place on a Ulster-wide basis. We do not differentiate between the Six Counties and the three counties.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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Is Mr. Cassidy the regional manager for the north west?

Mr. Shaun Cassidy:

No, for Ulster.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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Is he regional director for the nine counties of Ulster?

Mr. Shaun Cassidy:


Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Ulster in its proper context.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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I remember one time when Cavan was not in Ulster, but I will not go there. We will not talk about the past.

I appreciate the attendance of the delegation. The meeting has been a good opportunity for the witnesses to put on public record the good work that they do. If the committee can be of help then our door is open. We appreciate their being here and thank them for their contribution. We will be in touch. I also thank the members.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.05 p.m. sine die.