Thursday, 11 June 2020
Covid-19 (Sport): Statements
I will share time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin. This evening's debate is an opportunity for Deputies to air their views on the pandemic's impact on sport. I look forward to hearing their ideas and suggestions.
I do not pretend that we have all the answers at this point, far from it. Many questions remain to be answered. Although considerable uncertainty still prevails for Irish sport, we are much better placed now than we were at the launch of the Government's Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, which was accelerated last Friday as a result of the progress made in April and May in fighting the pandemic.
I understand that the Irish sporting community was pleasantly surprised at the extent of the references to sport in the roadmap and the clarity provided for each of the five initial phases, which are now four. It does not answer every question for every sport but it does give a vital planning framework. We are now a few days into phase 2. There already are nearly 20 outdoor-only sports that have restarted, in accordance with various public health requirements. As that is about a third of all sports in Ireland, we are making headway. There are, however, considerable challenges ahead. No one is confidently predicting an early return to the exact situation that prevailed before the pandemic. There certainly will be a new normal for sport.
I acknowledge there is disappointment in this House and across the country that the big-attendance field sports are not covered in the early phases. We are all missing the excitement of those big match days, all the more so given the glorious weather of recent weeks. People may feel as though those days will never return but I wish to sound a positive note today. There are huge challenges ahead, especially for mass gatherings, but I am convinced that solutions will be found that work for everybody, both for public health and the viability of sport.
I was encouraged to hear over the last weekend the planned resumption of intercounty GAA matches later in the year and the resumption of training by four League of Ireland clubs.
Further afield, soccer is resuming, with limited spectators, in some European countries and rugby will shortly follow in New Zealand. I think we can take heart at these developments.
As with other sectors, Irish sport has been hit hard by this crisis. The Government has taken a cross-sectoral approach where the aim has been to stabilise the situation. The Government's overarching cross-sectoral approach to the Covid-19 pandemic was designed to ensure that economic activity recovers as quickly as possible, consistent with public health advice.
The cross-sectoral measures introduced by the Government to date have benefited national and local sporting organisations and have been widely welcomed. They include, in particular, the temporary wage subsidy scheme, the pandemic unemployment payment and the series of enterprise supports ranging from liquidity funding, loan schemes and grants vouchers, as well as deferred tax payments and the deferral of commercial rates.
As to whether further supports will be needed, I think the answer is almost certainly "Yes". Discussions are under way but not yet concluded. The details will need to be worked on and we will liaise closely with the sector. Not all sports organisations have been affected to the same extent. The most acutely affected are those with summer seasons and with a heavy reliance on gate receipts. A targeted and focused response is clearly appropriate in these circumstances.
Despite the current difficult situation we must continue to work towards hosting such major events as the postponed UEFA football championships. As Members are aware, Dublin was due to host four games this year and an economic impact study commissioned by Dublin City Council indicated that up to 96,000 overseas visitors were expected to attend, delivering an economic impact of up to €126 million. UEFA sought confirmation from the governing authorities of the 12 host cities that they were willing and able to host in June and July of 2021. The Government has reconfirmed the guarantees required and I have written to the president of UEFA confirming that Ireland will host next year's Euro 2020 matches. The Government remains fully committed to working with all of the local organisations and with UEFA to mount a very successful UEFA Euro 2020 in Dublin in 2021. Obviously, we live in very uncertain and trying times but the rescheduled tournament will provide a much-needed economic, social and sporting boost for the country. I will hand over to the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin.
Last Friday's announcement by the Taoiseach of an acceleration in the Government's roadmap has been widely welcomed across Irish sport. It is fair to say that there was a certain sense of relief among the population that the journey back for sport is well and truly under way. As with so many other sectors, the world of sport, domestically and internationally, has been turned upside down as a result of Covid-19. At the start of 2020 it was absolutely unthinkable that we would be where we are in June and to see the upheaval affecting the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games and Euro 2020 but, unfortunately, that is where we are and we are making progress in terms of the roadmap back.
The accelerated roadmap has provided a much needed and welcome confidence boost to the sports sector. As well as the return of outdoor sport, sporting bodies can now make plans for summer camps for children and teenagers. I was delighted to see our high-performance athletes return to training on Monday at the Sport Ireland Campus and at Morton Stadium, the national sailing centre and the National Rowing Centre as well.
Before the pandemic we were dealing with record levels of interest in sports capital projects throughout the country. Although that presents funding challenges, it is nonetheless a welcome reflection of the importance that people and clubs nationwide attach to their sport and the need for improved sports facilities. More than 12,000 projects have benefitted from sports capital funding since 1998 at a cost of almost €1 billion. The sporting landscape of Ireland has been transformed, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every village, town and city in the country. The most recent sports capital round in 2018 attracted a record 2,337 applications, with allocations being announced in January, May and November of last year. A total of more than €56 million was awarded to nearly 1,700 different projects. In recent weeks my Department has received many queries about the sports capital programme, mainly concerning the status of grant approvals. I take the opportunity today to confirm publicly the continuing validity of prior grant approvals. I also emphasise that it is very much business as usual for the programme.
Club volunteers and officials in my Department working from home are busy working together to progress the drawdown of these and other outstanding grants.
The National Sports Policy 2018-2027 contains a strong commitment to further develop our sports facilities and we remain determined to deliver on that commitment. A review of the 2018 round is being finalised and a decision on the timing of the next round of the programme will be taken when this is complete.
With regard to the large scale sporting infrastructure fund, LSSIF, good progress is also being made for these types of projects, which are being covered under the newly-established fund. The Government has provided a capital allocation of at least €100 million for the period to 2027 for this scheme. The scheme closed for applications in April of last year with applications initially confined to local authorities and national governing bodies of sport. On 10 January, the Minister and I announced provisional allocations amounting to more than €77 million for 25 projects under the construction stream. Three days later, on 13 January, we announced provisional allocations of €5 million for a further seven projects under the design stream of the LSSIF. The evaluation procedures and guidelines for the LSSIF provide that once provisional allocations are announced, the successful projects will undergo a further process of due diligence. This process includes a further review of projects including economic appraisals and feasibility studies, as appropriate, to comply with the public spending code. This work is ongoing and I look forward to seeing many of the projects progress to the construction stage in the near future.
Sport is, thankfully, starting to resume. However, much work remains to be done, especially on the impact of social distancing requirements and what that means for those sports that inherently involve contact. There is also the significant issue of future mass gatherings on which so many sports depend, especially the field team sports. Considerable work will need to be undertaken in this regard. The importance of working through these issues collaboratively with the sector is fully appreciated and we shall continue to do that.
I thank all of the people involved in sport in Ireland at community and national level, all the athletes and everyone who is involved for the great co-operation and collaborative approach that they have displayed throughout this period. The sports people have helped so many communities through their volunteerism and through encouraging people to remain active. I acknowledge all of that work that is being done because it is critically important to the response.
With the Acting Chairman's permission and, indeed, that of the Minister, I will bank my questions and he can reply in writing in the interests of efficiency so that everybody gets in.
It would be remiss of me not to ask whether the Department has been in contact with the boxing authorities throughout the world to register our abhorrence in the words of senior members of the Judiciary of a crime organisation that has caused many deaths and much harm throughout Ireland and, indeed, the rest of the world being associated greatly with an upcoming high-profile boxing match in a professional tournament. Did the Minister make contact with Sky Sports, BT Sport or any other broadcasters which we have a relationship with to get their opinion on the situation and to express our abhorrence of their association with any organisation that is causing so much harm and so much death, crime and destruction in Ireland?
Can the Minister confirm that he met the FAI yesterday, and can he further confirm that they were looking for more funding? What was that funding for and will he be providing it? Is he satisfied that proper governance procedures were followed in the appointment of the current chairman, interim deputy CEO and CEO? The Minister stated on the news last week, "I can't help you ... [there]", and that was a matter for Amrop. However, the Minister will be aware, because he is always tuned in, that many have cast a complexion over the recruitment of what are the three best individuals for the jobs, as far as I am concerned - I have no axe to grind with them. There is an obscurity in the process, which makes the new FAI look very much like an old new FAI.
An article published today on the Irish Examiner's website quotes from correspondence issued about a week ago to the FAI raising serious matters in respect of governance. What is the Minister's position on that? Odgers Berndtson is to advertise for a permanent CEO of the FAI tomorrow. Will the Minister assure us that the process will be above reproach and will not have an obscure complexion like that which seemed to generate a number of candidate lists for jobs that were fluid and for which the Minister has stated he had no input? Did Sport Ireland have input and will it have input again? Is the recruitment firm being told to produce an expert list of candidates from which somebody will be chosen, or is the list subject to a masseur, either at Sport Ireland, the Department or some other entity, to ensure that a candidate who certain people think should get the job gets it, rather than the person who should get the job?
How will the Minister reconcile the FIFA and UEFA statutes in terms of having to have a majority of football directors as opposed to having an inbuilt majority, to use the Minister's own words, for the independent directors with the benefit of the casting vote?
What are the proposals for the League of Ireland? Is the Minister aware that, presumably, at least some public money will be of assistance for the four-team tournament proposed by the FAI? It happens to be the top four clubs. Having seen the names of the independent directors recruited, I did not notice that of George Orwell, although it seems the League of Ireland is now very much a club of equals where all clubs are equal but some are more equal than others. What about Sligo Rovers, Shelbourne Rovers, Finn Harps and Athlone Town? All told, there is considerable concern that the new FAI, in process, procedure and governance, looks very much like the old FAI. What does the Government propose to do about it?
I turn to the Federation of Irish Sports, which represents 81 national governing bodies and 29 local sports partnerships. It has stated that for all the institutions, their funding supports have been reduced by between 60% and 100%, yet 85% of the current expenditure costs continue to be applied to them. Will the Minister consider the establishment of a sports resilience fund, similar to that in New Zealand?What are his proposals for establishing one? While I appreciate there is an expert group on the return to sport, will he outline whether he will set up a task force on the support for sport?
Finally, and I apologise that this is a transport issue, the Minister will know that I have, ad nauseam, asked for a clear and prompt pathway for the reopening of aviation. He will have noted today that the European Commission clearly stated that all intra-EU restrictions are to be lifted on 15 June, which merely puts the Government's plan and pathway one month behind the curve. Will the Minister be reviewing that?
As justice spokesperson for Fianna Fáil, I wish to put on record and to express to the Minister and the Minister of State my disgust at the development in recent days that has seen major, reputable individuals in the world of boxing decide to affiliate themselves and get involved with a leading Irish figure in an international criminal organisation. I ask that Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, Sky Sports and others involved in the fight inform themselves about the Kinahan criminal organisation. They do not have to listen to politicians or the media, but I think they do have to listen to judgments of the Irish courts and, in particular, to a decision by Mr. Justice Hunt given in the Special Criminal Court last month. In that decision, he referred to the Kinahan criminal organisation as an organised crime gang involved in "execution-type murders" in the context of feuds "to protect its core activities", which include "organised drugs and firearms" offences on "an international scale".
I ask the people involved in this fight to inform themselves about that. They cannot just hide from those facts because there is a great deal of money to be made. The lives of people in inner-city Dublin, which have been decimated by the Kinahan criminal organisation, deserve to be recognised by the other people involved in the fight. The victims of killings by the criminal organisation also need to be aware of it.
On what needs to be done in respect of sport, one of the main negative consequences of the lockdown has been the impact of the closure of sport on young people, including children. They thrive on sport. All of us who played sports as youngsters know how important it is to us. I urge the Minister, Mr. Ross, and the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, to do their best to ensure we can get young people back playing sports. Sport is great for spectators but it is more important for participants, particularly young people.
Deputy Jim O'Callaghan referred to young people and the impact of the closure of sport on them. I commend young people for their incredible volunteerism during the lockdown. Their sporting organisations throughout Ireland have raised thousands upon thousands of euro for charitable organisations. In west Cork, where I am from, members of sports organisations and clubs have taken part in 5 km runs and sit-up and push-up challenges and they have raised thousands for the local community hospital there. I take this opportunity to commend them for that.
Among the most popular sports where I am from in west Cork are the equine sports of harness racing and trotting. It is the highlight of the summer for many people. They spend their summer Sundays harness racing. When it was announced that racing would return in phase 2, the equine community was, of course, overjoyed, but the harness racing fraternity found out only later that the announcement did not apply to them. Unfortunately, the return of their sport was pushed out to phase 3. This is completely unfair and it makes absolutely no sense.
I welcome the news that thoroughbred racing has returned behind closed doors. I also welcome the news that greyhound racing has returned behind closed doors. I called for this repeatedly. Why, however, are harness racing and trotting being discriminated against by comparison with other sports? Right across Europe and the rest of the globe, harness racing is treated in the same way as thoroughbred racing. Eighteen countries across Europe treat it in the same way and are allowing races to be run behind closed doors. Why is that not the case here? The sad fact is that harness racing has always been treated as the poor relation of thoroughbred racing. This needs to stop, particularly when it comes to funding. I acknowledge that funding comes under the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but the point has to be made that harness racing is always treated as the poor relation. This inequality needs to stop.
The Irish Harness Racing Association has submitted a 70-page document detailing how harness racing can resume behind closed doors. I believe it is on the Taoiseach's desk. Could the Minister please bring my message to the Cabinet, including the Taoiseach? Could he please let this great sport resume behind closed doors and stop the unequal treatment of two sports that are very similar?
I am going to focus on the on-the-ground issues affecting the ordinary local sports club, irrespective of the sport. First, what discussions have taken place on insurance rebates in respect of public liability insurance pertaining to accidents of players who play every year as club members and so on? There should be a rebate from the insurance companies. The Department should insist on it.
Second, we need to move forward fast regarding juvenile sports. The summer is here and the children will all be off school. They have been off school for a long time but it is vital that we ascertain whether children transmit Covid-19. There seems to be some evidence that they do not. Can we get the children back playing real matches, with ten, 11 or 12 players, as soon as possible and proceed from there?
My third point is on club sport. The pitches of many clubs, including football and hurling clubs but also other clubs involved in such outdoor sports, have quite big perimeters. We need clear guidelines to the effect that if people stay apart – they are fantastic at this in the local communities – matches can be run locally with people in attendance. At many club grounds around the country there would be no problem putting barriers 2 m or 3 m wide around the pitch to allow spectators to attend. Let us be honest about it: sports, particularly local sports, as in two clubs playing in Kerry, are not the same without spectators.
Will there be testing of players? I do not know if the virus can be transmitted in the type of close contact a person might have in a football match where a person might bump another person for a second or two. We need to test frequently and very frequently at the beginning.
Has consideration been given by the Government to mass events and particularly the funding of temperature testing at the stiles in a number of key grounds around the country? This is so when a crowd goes in there would be a temperature check and if anybody had an elevated temperature, he or she could be picked out. This could be done where we take 20,000 or 30,000 people into the very big grounds we have like the Aviva Stadium, Croke Park and so on. That might allow us to move to that phase a bit earlier.
I have three brief comments not related to sport but they are pertinent to the Minister when he is in the Chamber. On 13 May I raised with the Minister the matter of face coverings on public transport and he will have heard today about the World Health Organization recommendations. Has the Minister changed his mind on this or will clearer guidance be given? It is essential that face coverings be worn while a person is on public transport.
The second matter relates to people over 70 who are receiving appointments from the National Driver Licence Service but who are still being turned away. The information on the website is very unclear so I would like the Minister to look into the matter.
My third comment relates to the national car test centres, where I am led to believe people are being charged a full amount instead of a recheck fee. Will the Minister provide clarity on those matters and commit to dealing with them? Perhaps the Department might liaise with me on that.
Covid-19 has had a detrimental impact on elite and grassroots sports in Ireland. We are all keen on sport and want to see it thrive or flourish. Many clubs in my constituency have seen an impact from the crisis and missed vital training and competition opportunities. They face serious issues of funding because of the effects of the virus and national ticket sales, media rights revenues and memberships have all dried up. Sporting participants and volunteers have, equally, lost out in training and other regular activities. Sport is an integral part of Irish life and our communities. We all work hard for our clubs. My colleague mentioned the resilience fund set up in New Zealand so I wonder will the Minister give a commitment on that. I am thinking particularly of our elite athletes and those who will compete in Tokyo but who will have to wait another year to do so. Will the Minister confirm what actions will be taken to support elite athletes and sporting clubs around the country?
I am afraid there are only four seconds remaining in the slot and I do not expect the Minister to be able to reply in that time. The reply will have to come by means of written communication. Moving to Sinn Féin, Deputy Darren O'Rourke proposes to share time with Deputies Dessie Ellis and Chris Andrews. Are you each taking five minutes?
We will see how we get on. I have a couple of questions for the Minister and will afford him the opportunity to answer. I commend all the sporting organisations, as I am sure everybody does, on their efforts during the Covid-19 crisis. They really have been the backbone of the community responses. I thank them for their sacrifice. This goes from kids missing out on a kick about to the elite athletes missing out on the Olympics or some of the high points of their careers in some cases. The importance of sport and sporting organisations to the social fabric of Ireland has been put up in lights and its importance spans a wide range of Departments, whether they relate to culture and heritage, health, mental health, regional and rural affairs and children. This is not even including the business element.
Many local sports clubs around the country have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and despite many local people availing of facilities in order to keep fit and exercise, many clubs are now facing financial trouble because they are unable to operate or fundraise locally. For example, clubs may not have been able to run a lottery or hold fundraisers while clubhouses are closed.
Will the Government make extra funding available to help sports clubs and, if so, what form will that take?
I will answer that question briefly and then hand over to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin. The Government is looking for a new package to help sport generally. That will include all the national governing bodies, large and small, and it will be distributed, hopefully, to the grassroots, which are the most important in this regard. I share the Deputy's tribute to the volunteers. It is very important that sport at every level is supported, not just the big battalions but at a grassroots level also.
I thank the Deputy for affording the Minister and me an opportunity to respond to his questions. We know there are some clubs that have experienced severe financial difficulty. Some can absorb that and survive. Some are in danger of going under. That is the real concern. The Department is working with its partners. We are examining the various options and I am in close contact with the Federation of Irish Sport and individual CEOs. I would like to see some sort of resilience fund that could be administered by Sport Ireland, perhaps through the national governing bodies. Where there are hardship cases, the clubs in question would benefit from the fund and we would get the money to where it is needed most as quickly as possible. We are working on that. We are acutely aware of the severe challenges being faced.
Last Friday's announcement will be useful in terms of income streams for many clubs with Cúl Camps coming back, for example, in GAA circles. Other summer camps are coming back also. We know that will provide only a small amount of relief. We have also engaged with insurance companies to ensure there will be cash refunds in respect of the elements that were covered during the lockdown where there was no exposure to liability. The Minister and I met Insurance Ireland and we got a guarantee that that money will be returned in cash as would elements of the premiums that relate to those parts of the cover.
I thank the Minister and Minister of State. I have a question on gyms and swimming pools. Many avid sports people are keen to get back to the gym or swimming pool and their routine of exercise. Under the original roadmap, swimming pools were set to open in phase 4 while gyms were scheduled to reopen in phase 5. Will the Minister provide an update on this plan under the reconfigured roadmap that was announced last week? Is it the case that both these types of facility are set to reopen on 20 July?
We have established an expert group to work with the national governing bodies and sporting organisations on various protocols in terms of how that can be done safely. We have seen an acceleration in elements of the roadmap and it is possible that we could see that in respect of gyms and swimming pools. There is a process to go through but that is actively happening. The expert group is closely examining those protocols and working with the various organisations. We want to ensure there will be no undue delay in returning to sport in whatever way possible.
My final comment will be to echo the sentiments expressed publicly and in this Chamber in the past 24 hours in regard to the boxing community. I am a member of a boxing club and I am very proud of the contribution boxing has made in communities across Ireland. I am very proud of our amateur and professional boxers who have done so well on the world stage, in the Olympic Games and in world championships. It is very important that the State make every effort to ensure that professional boxing is not hijacked by elements that we would not like to see involved in it and that Ireland's name continues to shine strongly on the world boxing stage.
For the information of the House, I was appalled to see what has surfaced in the past 24 hours. I have today asked officials to draft letters to my counterpart in the UK and also to the broadcasters, Sky and BT Sport, expressing our outrage about this matter. It is completely unacceptable. My heart goes out to the decent volunteers and participants in boxing across the country who put in so much time and effort for their communities. Sport Ireland has no connection with professional boxing but it wants to emphasise that in regard to amateur boxing in this country there is no question whatsoever of any link to criminality.
The danger is that the reputation of Irish boxing may be tarnished by this incident. That is grossly unfair to the large number of people who do great work. It is important to emphasise that. We are taking this very seriously. We are absolutely appalled by this link.
I endorse that. It is really important that it comes from this side of the House as well. I will be very brief. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence. The work done on the ground is absolutely unparalleled. The Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, and I have been to many boxing clubs, particularly around this city, which are manned by volunteers who do incredible work for their communities. It would be absolutely wrong and tragic if their names were to be sullied by activities which are completely and utterly unacceptable. I take this opportunity to say "well done" to the volunteers in the world of boxing. We will support them. They are doing a great service. We know they have absolutely nothing to do with what is going on elsewhere.
I thank the Acting Chairman very much. My constituency of Dublin North-West has a great number of clubs and associations which include boxing clubs, GAA clubs, soccer clubs, pigeon clubs and many more. All have a long history and association with local communities. Generations of families have been members of these clubs. All make valuable contributions to the community and to the physical and mental well-being of their members. We owe them all huge thanks for their selfless dedication and commitment to our communities. As we begin the process of reopening society, with the prospect of clubs and associations opening their doors to members again, will the Minister assure these clubs and associations that assistance will be given to help them maintain a safe environment, in view of the threat of Covid-19, and that the necessary supports will be provided to allow them to operate in safe environments for their members and staff? Has the Minister considered putting in place dedicated local area testing facilities to ensure that these clubs can continue to be an important part of their communities?
I would also like to express my concerns with regard to the connections between sport and certain families with very serious criminal backgrounds which were mentioned by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and my colleague, Deputy O'Rourke. It is deplorable and needs to be tackled at the highest level.
We hope those clubs will be part of the recovery plan. I cannot speak highly enough of them. It has always been my experience in this Ministry that these clubs are the backbone of sport. It would be wrong if they were not a major and significant part of the recovery plan. The expert group will give advice on the guidelines about which the Deputy talked. Much of it will be up to the clubs. The volunteers are fantastic people and I have absolutely no doubt that they will abide by the protocols and enforce them because they have the good and the health of the members of the clubs in mind at all times.
I would like to add to that. Since March, through our sports monitoring group we have been engaging with the Federation of Irish Sport, the Olympic Federation of Ireland, representatives of the national governing bodies and some representatives of athletes. We are therefore very much aware of the challenges. We are working with our colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to the supports that can be extended to sport. As I said earlier, to get the money to the front line, where it is most needed, we will require the co-operation of the national governing bodies. This will ensure that those who need it most will get it as soon as possible. We are working on that process.
I have a further small question. Are we setting up dedicated places for sports clubs or their members to be tested? I know we have Croke Park but will there be more local facilities in different areas to help communities?
I thank the Ministers. Prior to the pandemic, the League of Ireland and the clubs were making really positive progress. The underage structures were developing really well and were coming on.
One could start to see the benefits at underage international level. The women's football was developing very strongly as well. One element was the active engagement of clubs with community projects. It is hard to match the level of community activity in which clubs were involved. My club, Shamrock Rovers, is very much involved with local community projects and is at the heart of much of the good that happens in that community. For example, Shamrock Rovers was very supportive of Gaza Kids to Dublin. It is also supportive of the Homeless Period Ireland project and its end period poverty campaign. This community engagement is reflected in all the clubs across the country. The clubs are more than just football clubs because they are at the heart of the community.
With the Covid-19 pandemic the clubs and the league are effectively on a ventilator in ICU. What they need is oxygen, and in many ways the oxygen is cash flow. The only way for League of Ireland clubs to generate cash flow is to get people coming through the turnstiles. They will not survive without that. They need a great deal of support. The FAI does not have enough money, nor does the league. I understand that the meeting today with the clubs did not go well. There was much despondency among the clubs leaving it. There is great concern that the existence of many clubs may be in question. Will the Minister and Minister of State confirm and reassure clubs that no club will be allowed to go out of existence because of Covid-19? It is important to give some assurance to clubs.
The recovery plan is not in place yet but I would be amazed if the League of Ireland was not part of that because, as the Deputy said, it is a part of so many communities. It is more than just football clubs. As long as I am in this office, which may not be very long, I assure the Deputy I will push for that as far as I possibly can.
I am sharing time with Deputies Richmond and Feighan. As the Minister and Minister of State will be aware, the fundraising efforts of sporting clubs and organisations around the country have been decimated as a result of Covid-19. Many clubs in Mayo and throughout the country have cancelled their flagship annual fundraisers over the past three months and into the future, which will undoubtedly place significant strain on their finances. We are all aware of the importance of sport in our communities. In many cases, the local club is the beating heart of the community. In times of crisis such as this our language as parliamentarians is important to generate hope for the future. I wish to focus on the positives of recovery and growth, so I am hoping the Minister will provide clarity on the sports capital programme for 2020. This will be the financial lifeline, more so than in any previous year, for sporting clubs and associations to grow and expand. It is important for the clubs to be more active than ever post Covid-19 as they are the link that binds communities together.
Last week, I raised with the Minister for Health the importance of flattening the mental health curve as the next Covid-19 challenge, and sport has a critical role to play. Many people have taken up individual physical activity and we have witnessed a dramatic increase in cycling over the past three months. Any legislation will be a matter for the next Government but I wish to raise the need to make the use of cycle helmets mandatory in Ireland. Only a handful of countries around the world have enacted legislation making cycle helmets mandatory. Australia was the first country to introduce legislation, followed by New Zealand and Argentina.
I want to add Ireland to this list. We have excellent off-road cycling facilities in Mayo such as the Great Western Greenway connecting Westport, Newport, Mulranny and Achill, as well as the Monasteries of the Moy Greenway linking Ballina and Killala, and the Castlebar Greenway linking Raheens Woods trail and the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life in Turlough. However, not every county has the benefit of off-road cycle paths.
Due to the recent Covid restrictions, more people have taken to cycling. I have been contacted by local bicycle shop owners highlighting the need to promote the wearing of cycle helmets and making it a mandatory legal requirement to do so. We have spoken much in recent months of effective public health policy. We also need to expand the conversation to include cycle helmets to reduce acquired head injuries.
While not for discussion today, a similar argument can be made for introducing a mandatory need for helmets when using electric scooters. Will the Minister give serious consideration to this topic and raise it with his Department, as I will be raising this important topic again as soon as the new Government is formed?
Tomorrow, 12 June, is an iconic day in our country's history. It will be 32 years since Ireland beat England one-nil in Stuttgart. I had the great pleasure of bringing a double decker bus to that city with 22 soccer supporters from Ireland. It gave great joy and great hope to the Irish diaspora around the world, especially in the UK. Soccer, football and sport can be a diplomatic, enjoyable and interesting way to settle differences. Tomorrow will be a wonderful day to remember 32 years of being undefeated by our near neighbours, England, in, as some used to call it, the English game.
We are talking about the League of Ireland and the various issues regarding fundraising for clubs. Many clubs are going through serious stress and issues. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, brought in a certain grant for show societies of €5,000. It was a great injection of funds. Many GAA, soccer and rugby clubs around the country would benefit from a similar grant or a stipend of between €2,000 and €5,000. Such an injection could help many of those clubs in fundraising.
Many clubs are working extremely hard fundraising and have come up with different ideas. Years ago, one had club lotto and sponsored walks. Recently, Enniscrone Kilglass GAA had a ticketathon to raise funds. Geevagh GAA club had a 24-hour charity virtual relay. My soccer club in Boyle had a 50:50 draw which was very successful. Many people are joining it because there is a huge prize to be earned. My local soccer club earns over €1,500 a week from this draw.
A local GAA club, Shannon Gaels in north Roscommon, has brought the 50:50 draw to a new reckoning with a prize divided 40:40 and the remaining 20% going to a local charity. The local charity this week is the nursing home in Boyle. This is an innovative development. For clubs around the country, it is a great way of including community. I am not advocating gambling but it is a great idea to get funds.
I heard my colleague, Deputy Andrews, talk about Shamrock Rovers. I am delighted he mentioned Shamrock Rovers because as a Sligo Rovers supporter I am sick and tired of hearing about Rovers. There are two Rovers in this country, Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers. In the west and north west, there is only one Rovers, Sligo Rovers.
Of course, as the Minister will know, there is also Broadford Rovers in Ballinteer, the finest Rovers of the lot.
I pay tribute to the Minister, Shane Ross, and his service to the Oireachtas over many years, and especially to my constituency, Dublin Rathdown, as my local Deputy. I have absolute admiration and respect for him continuing in this important ministerial role during this extremely difficult time for our State and community.
I want to raise two substantive issues relating to sport.
I join with Deputies Jim O'Callaghan, Darren O'Rourke and Ellis in expressing my already-expressed concerns about the connections with Daniel Kinahan and the major boxing fight between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. I welcome the comments from the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, that he has communicated with the British authorities and with the broadcasters. This brings up the important role of media in the coverage of this fight. I pay credit to the Irish Daily Star, which has taken the extremely brave decision not to cover this fight while the involvement of Daniel Kinahan continues. There is a lesson for international press in particular to make sure it looks through the full details of what is going on in respect of the fight preparation and who is involved. I hope to see a change of tone and a bit of education.
With regard to substantive local issues in sport, I have a slightly niche one for both the Minister and Minister of State. This September, the Aviva was due to play host to the American football classics between Navy and Notre Dame. This was a significant game and I was very lucky to attend the previous version of this game a number of years ago, when the now Taoiseach was Minister, and to see the colour and the huge crowds that came to the country from the USA. It was a significant boost to our economy at a much tougher time. It is something that many of us were looking forward to, both as sports fans and from an economic and tourism point of view. What efforts have been made to try to secure the restaging of this particular fixture? I know the universities of Nebraska and Illinois are due to come in two years' time but there is an opportunity on many levels for this sport to be a driver for the country. It is not just about the game itself but also the matches that happen the night before at the high school and junior college levels. It is a substantial boost for what I admit is a minority sport, which I am fortunate to have played not so long ago and indeed for which I hold an all-Ireland winner's medal. As much from a sporting as a tourism point of view, it has to be chased.
As many Deputies, including Deputy Ó Cuív, have said, sport is so much better when one is there and crowds can enjoy it. We see that New Zealand will have live rugby this weekend with crowds there. There already have been soccer matches with crowds in Belgrade this week. When we get to a position when it is safe to do it, we need protocols for people to return to enjoy sport. It is not just about the elite athletes, participants and officials, but also the supporters who need to be enjoy it in safety and as soon as requirements allow.
That game was postponed by the American colleges and I assume it is still subject to the rules from NPHET about mass gatherings. I thank Deputy Richmond for what he had to say, endorse everything he said and congratulate him for what he said this morning on the radio. It was extremely helpful and courageous and gave a lead to many people today.
Deputy Dillon raised the sports capital programme. We are considering all the options. We know how important it is to so many communities and clubs. At the same time, we have a current funding issue in clubs too. We have to weigh up all of those options. We hope to make a decision on that as soon as possible. With regard to the compulsory wearing of helmets, any such decision would have to include widespread consultation with cycling clubs and people who regularly cycle throughout the country. That conversation would need to include the views of cyclists.
Deputy Feighan raised finance for clubs. We are looking at what we can do to support clubs that are in particular danger of going out of existence right now. We are keen to explore that further and to try to help those clubs before they come to that point.
In response to Deputy Richmond, a series of American football games are planned for Dublin. I know how widely the economic benefits are felt. I remember caddying for some of the Navy and Notre Dame supporters who were here in 1996 and came to Kerry after the game as well. There is significant economic impact to the State. The organisers are continuing to engage with officials from our Department in that regard.
Tonight marks the 30th anniversary of Kevin Sheedy's goal against England, where we got a one-all draw that helped us through to the last 16 at the conclusion of that group. That was the first game of the group. Today is a historic day too.
No, I am taking it all myself. I will leave time for questions.
I will make my contribution in two tranches. The Minister and Minister of State have already touched on some of the issues I wanted to talk about. I welcome the announcement of the sports recovery action plan. I ask the Minister of State to delve into it in a little bit more detail and outline a timeline for when he expects it to be set up.
I emphasise the importance of local clubs. The Minister of State spoke about channelling funding through national governing bodies, which is fair enough. However, I am most concerned about the local level, specifically lost revenue, costs that are currently difficult to cover, the need to train Covid-19 officers and the infrastructure local clubs will need to facilitate people in the new world we now live in.
I emphasise two issues, namely, small grants and speed. Small grants will open up a lot of clubs during the summer and will make their financial life a lot easier. Can the Minister of State tell me more about them? He praised the volunteers in various clubs highly and he is right to do so, but they would all like him to back those words with a few quid to help them out over the summer.
I also want to talk about the national sports policy 2018-2027, launched in December 2018. I flicked through it earlier. It is a very comprehensive document that outlines 57 actions. There was a plan to prioritise some of these. I understand the sports leadership group has not met since October 2019. Can the Minister of State say how that prioritisation is proceeding and when the priority actions can be published? That would be a good start. I will come back on another issue then.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. We are working very closely with the national governing bodies and the Federation of Irish Sport on the sports recovery action plan. We have approached the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to discuss the support that we know is needed for Irish sport, at the level of national organisations and in regard to local clubs that are at risk. We are working on that.
Furthermore, I am very keen to ensure that the sports leadership group we established as part of the national sports policy effort plays a significant role in implementing the sports recovery action plan. No decisions have been made on the make-up of that group, but there is already an excellent resource there. That role could evolve into leading the recovery. An approach based on consensus between all the key players is of great importance to Irish sport. Thankfully, there has been a very harmonious relationship between the key stakeholders in Irish sport for some time now and a lot of good work has been done.
I will get an update for the Deputy on the progress of the national sports policy 2018-2027. The Covid-19 crisis has thrown up questions about whether that policy needs to be tweaked. One very interesting element has emerged from this period. We set a target whereby 50% of the population would regularly participate in sport or physical activity by 2027. That figure has now reached 51%, up from 43% in 2018. How can we harness the good habits that have developed in this time and change the novelty to the norm? There is an opportunity for us to build on the behavioural change we have seen during this crisis to the benefit of future participation in sports. Some elements of sports policy will have to be reconsidered, but I am keen for the sports leadership group to play a significant role in the future. Along with everything else included in the policy, other expertise may be needed to assist the sports leadership group in dealing with the business element of sport and the rebuilding of finances. I will try to get a written update for the Deputy as quickly as possible.
I would also like to raise the issue of racism, particularly as it pertains to sport. I bring it up because Ms Nadia Power, the Irish athlete, recently asked us to continue the conversation on racism. We need to continue it in an appropriate and positive way. That is the only way we will make a difference to the various ways that people of colour and people from ethnic minorities experience racism on a regular basis in Ireland, including on sporting grounds.
We must keep that issue on the agenda and keep the discussions going in every sector.
I will mention some examples of what has happened to some young people. Leo Gaxha, a Kerryman, and now a young professional footballer, was told to "go back to [his] own country" while he was training in Tralee during the early weeks of the Covid-19 shutdown. In 2018, four Sporting Ennistymon F.C. players from Traveller backgrounds temporarily quit the sport, citing a series of racial slurs during games and the failure of referees to take them seriously. Yanis Zinedine Boulmelh, a Dubliner, was racially abused by an opponent during a game in the Leinster senior league. The referee took no action during the game, but Yanis has said he has experienced racism for more than 12 years on the pitch. The Westmeath GAA player, Boidu Sayeh, recently spoke up about his experience of racism and referenced a proliferation of sly comments. Gina Akpe-Moses stated that after she had competed and gained many medals, people had asked her why we had her and said that she is not Irish.
Many of the people speaking out are young adults, but I worry about the kids all across the country thinking of joining a team or taking up a sport. Perhaps they are getting hassle in their sport already and might be thinking about leaving it because of racism and sly comments. I would like the Minister and the Minister of State to comment on this issue as well, but I ask those children to tell someone, a friend, a parent, a coach or a teacher. I ask coaches and clubs across the country to check in with their kids and ask them if they have been getting hassle and sly comments. I also ask those clubs to not only look at who is in a club, but who is not in a club. I ask them to look around their communities and consider who in the community is not part of a club and why. Who does not feel comfortable approaching a club? Who has never been asked to join a club, who is afraid to ask and who never thought about asking?
These are the questions we can and should ask, not just regarding ethnicity, but also concerning gender and girl's and women's participation in sport, as well as the participation of people with disabilities and people with different sexual orientations. I highlight this issue not just to point out the things that are wrong and should be better, but to highlight the broader issue of inclusion in this session, because sport, and team sports in particular, if done properly and inclusively, have enormous potential to break down barriers, help people to feel they belong and are valued and are part of the community.
In respect of the national sports policy, what measures are being implemented to help kids in these situations? I refer to upskilling coaches, leaders and trainers into a position where they can intervene and deal with the kinds of things that happen regularly on pitches and at various sports grounds.
As the Deputy probably knows, Sport Ireland works with the NGBs regarding inclusion and children and youth sports in the context of these issues. The Deputy is right that recent events have underlined the need for those efforts to be accelerated, emphasised and redoubled.
I acknowledge the work the Deputy has been doing in this field for many years. When I think of sport, I think of the great opportunities that exist regarding inclusion and breaking down barriers, as the Deputy mentioned. Unfortunately, we also hear appalling stories such as these from time to time. The Deputy listed some of the names of those people who, unfortunately, have had to endure completely unacceptable behaviour, even if that occurs in a minority of cases. My view is that the vast majority of sporting situations are very inclusive and are positive experiences. The types of situations the Deputy described are appalling, unacceptable and need to be stamped out, and our sports policy is very much focused on trying to do that.
One of the elements of the policy that we are keen to progress is to give greater capacity to organisations to deal with problems as they arise at every level and to ensure the personnel who make up those organisations are more broadly representative of our new communities. The key part of this is to try to bring people in and extend a welcome to them in order that they will take part and become mentors in those clubs. That is something we need to work on in the future.
It behoves all of us to reflect on the second part of the contribution made by my constituency colleague, Deputy Joe O'Brien, not only the testimonies he shared but the comments he made thereafter. I commend the work the Deputy has done for many years, and continues to do, in tackling racial discrimination in this sphere. It is a credit to him and our constituency.
I will ask some practical questions before making a number of comments. Can further clarity be provided to clubs on the sports capital grant? I am aware that this issue was raised earlier but these grants are the central plank of sports funding for many clubs, which build much of their planning and funding around them. If the Minister of State could give further clarification on the 2020 sports capital programme, it would be much appreciated.
A number of sports clubs have contacted me asking why they have been excluded from the restart grant announced by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. They are availing of the three month waiver for commercial rates but when the phasing ends and they open up they will have been five months out of business. There is a two month lag, and they would benefit from being able to apply for the restart grant. Will the Minister and Minister of State, in their official capacity, make representations to their ministerial colleague to allow sports clubs to apply for the grant? The amount of money is not great in the overall scheme of things, but it is great for individual clubs and would make a huge difference in helping them get back up and running and on their feet.
Is a grant or pot of money - I know there are not many of those around - still available for the local authority swimming pool programme? If so, can changes be made to the terms of the grant to repurpose it in order to help swimming pools bounce back from the hit they have taken?
One issue that has come up, and was touched on by a previous speaker, is fundraising. We are all in awe of sports clubs and their committees, and how they constantly strive to improve, get people out playing sport, improve their facilities and raise funds. When everything shut down that drive to raise funds continued and many clubs wanted to run online lotteries. However, a licence had to be granted by the District Court. I have written to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, requesting that powers be devolved to the superintendent in local Garda stations to allow licences for online lotteries to enable sports clubs to raise funds. It was a barrier we did not know existed until this pandemic and one the Department could address. God forbid we are ever in this situation again but it would make it easier for sports clubs to engage in this form of fundraising if superintendents had this power. It would also have helped many clubs over the last couple of months. I am hopeful the Minister of State will take that proposal on board. I am interested to hear his thoughts on it.
While I do not want to wade into the issue of the FAI because the League of Ireland and FAI are at a sensitive point in their discussions, the FAI has always appeared to play the central role in Irish football. It has always put itself forward as the main actor in Irish football to the detriment of grassroots soccer, our international football team and the League of Ireland, which only exists because its clubs have pulled themselves up by their boot straps. The League of Ireland cannot be allowed to fall off the cliff. There is an existential crisis and a feeling of despondency in the League of Ireland. Who can blame it for that given that it has always been treated by the FAI as last on the list and never worthy of the investment and support it requires? My colleagues, Deputies Andrews and Feighan, spoke about the club I support, Shamrock Rovers, and what it does in the community. We can all point to what our League of Ireland clubs do and the reach they have in their local community. They have done all of that themselves.
I know the Minister sees that and agrees with it but I appeal to him and his Department because not only do clubs have to get through this crisis but we need to place the League of Ireland front and centre in Irish soccer. They combine grassroots soccer and the international stage. We all just about remember Stuttgart and Euro 1988, Italia 1990, USA 1994 and all these marquee events but it is the Friday nights in Tallaght Stadium, the Brandywell, Turners Cross and everywhere else that soccer thrives and needs to do so for the future. I ask the Minister to bring that back and send it, through his Department, to the FAI and everyone else.
As a boxing fan, I add my utter disturbance and disgust at what is going on with this proposed world heavyweight title fight. Like many other boxing fans, I have always enjoyed world title fights. I have ordered them on television and met friends to watch them. I will be boycotting this title fight because it is a slur on the great sport of boxing and everything it has done at amateur and professional levels. I think of the great work of promoters such as Brian Peters and the nights they have given us in Ireland, including Bernard Dunne fights. I think of all the senior, intermediate and junior championships I have been at, the Olympic medals Irish boxers have won and the joy the sport has given. This casts a slur over all of that. I was used to reading about the dark side of boxing in history books, things that happened in Madison Square Garden in the 1930s and 1940s. To think that it is happening in 2020, and that an Irish person is being attached to it and credited with putting this fight together, being part of the sport washing that is going on, is disgusting. We can agree on how this is an abhorrence to us all. I add my voice to what has been said before and what will be said after I have spoken and I simply take that to the Minister and the Minister of State. I would appreciate any answers the Minister or Minister of State can give to the questions I have asked.
I will try to address as many of the issues as I can. Under the sports capital programme, we want to be as flexible as possible to people who have already been granted funding. We know that the drawdown time might be slower than it would have been pre-Covid-19. There will be flexibility there.
The Deputy asked about repurposing grants within clubs. We ask any club whose circumstances have changed whereby a new priority has arisen, for example for other capital investment, to contact the Department directly. The Department will try to be flexible and to facilitate such requests within reason.
No decision has been made about the rolling out of the new round of grants. At the moment, our focus is on the current funding and ensuring that clubs remain in existence. I am not sensing a massive appetite from clubs to expand right now. I am hearing that clubs would be happy to survive in a lot of cases. That seems to be the general thrust of where clubs are at but we are looking at the review at the moment and will try to progress things as quickly as possible.
We have made contact at official level with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation about the restart grant. I certainly would have liked to see clubs involved in that and it is unfortunate that they were excluded. As there are 6,000 clubs on the online sports capital register, OSCAR, for sports capital loans, the demands from that scheme would have been significant. I would like the clubs to be involved and to get some sort of a grant back from what they have already paid in. We have made those approaches at official level.
The large scale sport infrastructure fund now covers swimming pools. The old local authority swimming pool programme is now covered by the large scale fund. In January, seven of the successful projects announced had a swimming pool element, so such projects did quite well, proportionately speaking. That is the appropriate avenue. No date has been decided yet for the opening of the next round of applications for the large scale fund but that will be a suitable avenue for those applications in the future.
The Deputy asked about fundraising mechanisms and their legality. I cannot answer him straight away. I will ask the officials in the Department to look at and explore that to see if they can remove any red tape or snags that are there to try and give clubs that option. I was talking to my local GAA chairman last night about the club lottery and now that people are going to shops again, there might be a chance to get that going. We know it can be difficult to get things going online. Some people tend to buy one annual ticket whereas if they were buying them on a weekly basis, they might buy two or three. There are difficulties there.
The Minister and I take the future of the League of Ireland seriously.
We worked so hard at the end of last year and the start of this year to get that package of supports in place for the FAI to ensure that there would be a future for the organisation and of course the League of Ireland as well. The supports that were provided to the FAI at the time ensured that the league would be able to continue. Right now in our engagements with the NGBs, any support that will be going to the FAI for this period will include the requirement to support the League of Ireland as well. I have not received a brief on how the meeting went today but I am expecting one later. We are fully supportive of the league and want to see it flourish into the future. A key cornerstone of rebuilding soccer in Ireland is that there would be greater emphasis on the league.
I am very pleased that we have sport on the agenda tonight. The loss of active sport and the coverage of sport across the various media has left a large gap. We are all very glad to see sport returning, albeit very gradually. It will be a long time before we see stadia full. That has its own consequences. We should acknowledge the work the volunteers in sport did throughout all of our communities in the non-sporting arena in supporting communities during Covid. Such organised groups are so important and it is great to be able to call on them. I support the call for a resilience fund. It is absolutely essential. Sport is a critical component of Irish life that needs to be supported. It is essential that this includes areas of sport that have tended to do less well. I refer to minority sports such as women's sports, for which it was always more difficult to get sponsorship, for all that this has been changing in recent years.
Not having a committee system in the Oireachtas at the moment is a real problem because there are number of issues we could be dealing with, not least pre and post-Covid issues but also things like the FAI. We had a lot of engagement at the committee in respect of it. I also refer to the Irish Greyhound Board, although that it is under the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. An Indecon report published in the past month paints a terrible picture of the sector, whose representatives have been in front of the Committee of Public Accounts in recent years. It has received €16.8 million from the Government this year and in the region of €14.7 million has already been drawn down. That report will have to be looked at. It is the most supported sport in the country. When we start looking at the other sports that require attention, we really have to question that.
I want to ask some questions concerning the FAI. In doing so, I want to place on record my absolute commitment to, and support for, the League of Ireland. I recognise that there are very individual issues in that regard and the FAI has to be seen as a separate issue. A complaint was made to FIFA and, I think, UEFA as well in recent weeks about the Government's involvement through the memorandum of understanding. Is the memorandum of understanding nailed down? Is it Government backed or is it a question awaiting the Minister's successor? It is important that we get this nailed down. On the six-six deal with the casting vote of the chairperson, did the Minister anticipate that arrangement not being voted through at the FAI council? What progress has been made on removing people from the board who have been on it for ten or more years?
People not moving on was one of the main issues. We cannot miss this opportunity for a new dawn. Covid has interrupted a lot of good work.
Has FIFA made its view known on the six-by-six arrangement? Is the Minister concerned that none of the new FAI committees established last year has met since? Can he confirm that the visionary group trio from the FAI met officials from the Department yesterday? Were their discussions about Covid relief alone or were other matters raised?
Last month, a partner with the professional services of PricewaterhouseCoopers quit the FAI's audit risk and compliance committee citing its lack of progress. That is a real red flag. Will the Minister comment on that. Important questions were raised in January by Andrew Doyle and Larry Bass. No financial information was being made available to the finance committee. This is the type of thing we debated last year. It is terribly disappointing that we are starting to see the same issues arise again.
Questions are being asked about the selection of Mr. Roy Barrett. Did the Minister play any role in his selection? Did he have any communications with the headhunting firm in compiling the list of nominees?
I had no contact whatever with Amrop, the recruiting firm. That said, I stand absolutely foursquare behind the chairman, Mr. Barrett. He is doing a job which has completely and utterly disassociated him from the old guard. The six-all division the Deputy mentioned is part of that, but I completely reject the absurd suggestion from Deputy MacSharry that there is some overlap or an association in any way between the old and the new FAI boards. Mr. Barrett has, as far as I know, no association whatever.
The Deputy mentioned the six-all arrangement. It is obvious that there are still some reactionary forces in the FAI. They are not in favour of this arrangement. That is coming up on 6 July. I do not think the delay is due to any sinister reasons, but, rather, to Covid. We must be aware that there are still people in the FAI who are trying to delay the reforms, and I am determined that should not happen. We should remember that the money the Government is giving the FAI, which is the Deputy's money and that of other taxpayers, is conditional upon a reformed organisation.
The Deputy also asked whether the memorandum of understanding was Government backed. Yes, it is. I see no reason it should be withdrawn or why there should be any give in that regard. I cannot say what the new Government will do but I can say what this Government is doing. The memorandum of understanding is totally backed by the Government. The FIFA representative was there when it was signed, which is a sign of approval. The deal was done by four bodies, with the support of the Bank of Ireland, the FAI and FIFA.
I think the memorandum of understanding is rock solid and it will remain so.
It might have been yesterday morning or it might have been the previous evening. That meeting was attended by Gary Owens, who is the chief executive of the FAI, and several other people from the NGBs as well, so it was not exclusively the FAI.
I wish to state on the record that I did not have any role whatsoever in the recruitment process. We know that in January the FAI was in danger of insolvency. It was in a critical situation. The people who went in there had far more to lose than gain by doing so. They need our support in order to try to get the FAI and soccer in general to a better place. They have made some progress. Rome was not built in a day. As already stated, they inherited an organisation that was in a critical situation. They have a lot of work to do. They have not got everything done yet but progress is being made.
I acknowledge the tremendous voluntary and community efforts made by soccer clubs, GAA clubs and other sporting bodies at a community level throughout this crisis. Those clubs and their activities have been badly missed in our communities and they will need ongoing supports from the Department when they reopen.
There has been much talk tonight about integration and equality. There has also been much talk in recent months about flattening the curve. One Deputy used the term "breathtaking inequality" to described how sports capital funding is administered by the Department. We have had some spectacular examples of that and the Minister has left us a legacy of them. A sum of €150,000 went to resurface the hockey pitch at Wesley college, a private school, and €150,000 was also provided to Loreto high school Beaufort, another private school, for resurfacing a pitch.
I represent a part of the inner city of Dublin that is one of the most deprived and economically disadvantaged areas in the country. Between the two canals, there are approximately 40 clubs that require playing fields and there is no space for their teams to play on. There is an obvious reason for this, which is that any time land is available, it is siphoned off for development by wealthy developers because it is considered to be very valuable. I will take as an example St. Kevin's hurling club in Dolphin's Barn, which does outstanding work to integrate local youth. It is a problem to get local kids involved and to keep them involved in sport in the area. They have had a chunk of their pitch, which was a small enough playing space, taken from them for the development of private apartments. That is really shameful but it can go ahead because of lax planning regulations in the city. Let us imagine that between the two canals, there is no space for the teams put out by 40 clubs to play on. The clubs have to travel outside their areas to access decent sporting facilities. I would love to see us try to flatten the curve in the context of the inequality that exists in how we treat various areas and in how land, money and facilities are allocated to these very densely-populated communities in order to allow people to play sports and to facilitate and develop sports.
Due to the fact that people from the clubs to which I refer have to travel outside their areas, I want the Minister to address the question of public transport. Can he imagine, as we try to move back to what may be the new normal, hundreds adults and children from these clubs travelling on public transport, whether it is on Dublin Bus or Bus Éireann, on short or long journeys and without proper protection? The Government is being utterly hypocritical because there is much talk that masking should be used and that it is advisable. We heard from the WHO this morning that the suggestion that masking should be mandatory on public transport is perfectly reasonable.
Making it mandatory would put an onus on the State to provide masks. We are all familiar with the scenes at transport hubs in Madrid, in the cities in Italy and in places across Austria and Germany where representatives of the state stand there and hand out masks to passengers as they move in and out of public transport facilities. That is what must be done here.
I will use the example of Bus Éireann. I have spoke to the Minister about this previously. The protocols for return to work were issued on 9 May, some 33 days ago. It was only last week that the health and safety council of Bus Éireann finally held a Zoom meeting of all its national representatives to discuss what can be done. What can be done has not been done and those involved have wasted 33 days in making preparations for a return to something like normality. The Minister knows, as I do, that we will eventually have to provide more capacity on buses and that masking will be key to this. Protecting drivers will also be key. Some 35 drivers in the Broadstone depot alone have been sent home with symptoms of the virus. The statistics of deaths among bus drivers in London and New York, which, I admit, are much bigger cities, are very high - 42 in London and 120 in New York. For the sake of both passengers and those who work on buses, we need to do much more. The Minister's role in the context of intervening with the National Transport Authority is crucial because Bus Éireann drivers have been driving around without adequate protective screening.
We heard recently from Professor Kingston Mills of Trinity College that what is required on public transport is proper air filtering. I refer to a system involving the use of high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters, that will trap the virus. The systems we have on our buses are totally inadequate and 70% of the vehicles in the Bus Éireann fleet do not have windows that passengers can open. This means that the virus could be circulating in the are on these buses. The situation is extremely dangerous situation and it has to be looked at with a certain urgency.
Apart from all of the other issues to do with the lack of health and safety on buses, the Cabinet needs to address the question of sourcing masks and giving those who operate public transport hubs the capacity to issue masks in order that we can protect passengers as they move towards returning to work and, in particular, in the case to which I refer, if we want communities to have their children re-engage in sport. To begin to move to what might be the new normal, we have to protect them as well. This will be an important challenge that the Department must take up.
I would also like the Minister to address the question of the breathtaking inequality in the way sports capital funding is dished out to communities. I will take him around my constituency and show him the dearth of facilities in areas where the population is dense and, as I stated earlier, most economically deprived. I would like to have the Minister address those two questions.
I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to answer those questions, particularly the one in which she specifically referred to two private schools. The Deputy is absolutely correct. Two private schools were each given grants of €150,000. First, as I have stated previously when the Deputy raised has raised this matter, under the weightings that were in place at that time, every local club in every constituency in Dublin got the maximum amount if its application was valid, so it did not prove to be contentious. Second, there has been a misunderstanding recently - I do not whether it is deliberate - that the Minister moves around and makes funny decisions about these grants. In those particular cases - exactly the same happened this year - the grants and the appeals were referred to the various Ministers as recommended by the civil servants. It did not happen always in previous years that Ministers refused to introduce an element of discretion for themselves. In the past two rounds, at no stage did I ever use my discretion in terms of the sports capital grants.
What I am saying is that discretion in this regard will not be a legacy of mine at all, and nor will it be a legacy of the Minister of State. The schools came up for the grant and were signed off. In fact, both of the private schools failed in the first round and I signed off on that. They then won on appeal and I signed off on that. That is how it happened.
A different point the Deputy made is very fair, namely, that there would be more merit in giving the grants to disadvantaged schools. A further change in the recent round gave a more favourable weighting to disadvantaged schools. I would be delighted to go around the Deputy's constituency with her to see the disadvantaged schools to which she refers. I am sure they would be eligible for the grants, and if they do not own their property or land, they will certainly be eligible for equipment grants.
I would be delighted to address that. The issue of safety and masks is constantly under review. It was reviewed again today and the Deputy will have heard the message we got from the WHO, a representative of which appeared before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response earlier. I will support what the Chief Medical Officer recommends on the matter. If he changes his view in light of certain circumstances, I will support that.
An additional eight people have been recorded as having passed due to Covid-19 so, as good as we are going and despite the progress we feel we have made through the lockdown, we must stay as vigilant as ever. Again, we thank our health services.
Covid-19 has presented significant challenges to many sectors but the Minister's portfolio of transport, tourism and sport is seeing especially significant fallout. My questions largely relate to transport and, in particular, buses. The Minister has acknowledged that the 2 m social distancing provision required at the moment means that only 20% of capacity can be used on a normal bus route. If it was reduced to 1 m, there would be up to 40% capacity. One does not have to be a genius to understand that no business can operate viably with a reduction in income of between 40% and 60% and up to 80%. Will the Minister give assurances that his Department will continue to support the provision of moneys to the public transport sector to overcome the losses it is suffering at this time?
Private bus operators run a number of scheduled services, both under public service obligations, PSOs, and in their own right. In order for them to remain viable, they will need an income support, either per seat or per journey, in the form of some type of a capitation grant. Otherwise, they will not be able to sustain business nor return to it.
On tourism, a number of Northern Irish operators provide bus services out of Dublin Airport, for which we are very grateful because this supports tourism throughout the country. How might this service be affected in the event of a WTO-rules Brexit outcome?
In the case of the PSO contracts that exist between Bus Éireann and private bus operators, parents and employers will need to have visibility before September as to what the situation will be with a return to operation by the providers.
Yes, but it is not part of the agenda.
On the PSO funding, the Deputy wanted some assurances. I brought to the Cabinet last week a memo with information to the effect that we would be seeking another €460 million for public transport for this year. This is a substantial amount. The Deputy will understand that what has happened already this year has used up the allocation. I can assure him tonight that the services will continue and that they are not in any jeopardy whatsoever. The Deputy can be assured that whatever the financial situation, the services are not in danger.
Before I get off the subject of transport, could I ask the Minister a couple of other questions on it? Will he consider supporting a VAT rate of 0% for the private bus and coach operators? I am aware that he has been lobbied on this. There is a VAT anomaly in respect of Northern Ireland, as he probably knows. He should give the operators a level playing field and allow them to have some revenue retention in terms of their business model.
Is the Minister working with the Department of Finance and the Department of Education and Skills on the issue of school buses returning?
Regarding the tourism recovery task force, will the Minister consider allowing a representative of the Coach Tourism and Transport Council of Ireland to be a member?
Let me move on to another area. I do not expect an answer now but I would appreciate a written one. The Minister recently provided €15 million for sea transport to the ferry operators. I understand the supports did not extend to some of the ferry operations with regard to the provision of services to facilitate the ports. Perhaps the Minister will respond to me detailing the expenditure heads and recipients of the funding.
On outdoor sport, we have been given a lift with the return this weekend and next week of Gaelic games, soccer and such sports. As a juveniles coach, I believe it is great news for kids and others involved. Maybe the Minister will indicate when he believes the clubs that depend on gate revenue will see spectators in attendance again.
May I highlight what has already been said in the House today regarding boxing? Everybody in this House and, I am sure, the public at large are appalled at the rebranding of a high-level member of an Irish drug cartel alleged to be involved in murder and serious crime as an international promoter of boxing renown. I hope the Minister's departmental officials are doing everything they can to liaise with the amateur boxing associations to make sure this gentleman and his contacts are not liaising with our amateur boxers or acting as agents for them. We should certainly be making a very principled stand on that.
With regard to tourism and hospitality, we heard from Dr. David Nabarro of the WHO this morning. It appeared to have been suggested with regard to bar food and restaurant servings that a large component will have to involve self-service. Can the Minister say anything on the economic planning that might give comfort to the many thousands of small business owners and employers in the tourism and hospitality sector?
Sun holidays look unviable for many this year. Has the Minister's Department considered any significant communications campaign to try to highlight the idea of Irish staycations and to build support for buy-Irish and stay-in-Ireland campaigns for the tourism sector this year?
The Deputy wears a large number of hats. He is very prolific. Well done. I will do what I can. I will hand over to the Minister of State in a minute.
On the tourism recovery task force, to which the Deputy alluded, we have filled the posts. I do not intend to suggest it should be expanded further; it is very large as it is.
It is really very much up to the task force. Once we have made the appointments, it is up to it to do what it can and, presumably, invite people in.
There is always a large number of bodies that feel they should be represented when we set up these groups. It is a very good group that the Deputy suggests but there are other people on the body who can represent those interests very adequately.
On Brexit, I think the cross-Border bus service can and will continue without any Brexit deal. We had all the arrangements for buses and the Enterprise train service in place and ready last time for a no-deal Brexit and I presume they persist. I cannot speak to what will happen in December or the months to come but those provisions will be ready if a no-deal scenario emerges. I will revert to the Deputy on the ferry operators and any other questions he asked.
I will comment on the staycations and the tourist and hospitality sector before bringing in the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin. The outlook for staycations is far better than it was six weeks or even three weeks ago. There is a great impetus for people to open and they are doing so. Six weeks or five weeks ago people were not looking forward to holidays here at all and it was said that tourism was dead but there is life in the tourism industry as a result of the lifting of restrictions.
The expert group on the return to sport will be working closely with national governing bodies on opening gates for sports clubs. We will require the guidance of NPHET on mass gatherings. We are aware of how important it is for sporting organisations to have people in attendance at live events but we do not know how much we will be able to permit as time goes on. If we can continue in the right direction with respect to new cases and containing the virus as we have done, I hope there will be some scope in the matter for the second half of the year.
With regard to the boxing matter, I informed the House earlier that I have asked officials to draft correspondence to broadcasters, including BT and Sky, as well as to my counterpart in the UK, to express our outrage. I am very concerned about the reputation of boxing in this country and particularly the confusion that may arise with amateur boxing, for example. It is very unfair on those involved.
We are looking for the lowest possible rate for the tourism and hospitality sector as we know it would bring a major advantage to the industry. Fáilte Ireland has a major campaign planned to encourage people to holiday at home this year, and the acceleration of the roadmap has facilitated that.
I would like to refer to a message I received from a very frustrated hotel owner this morning. The Minister, Mr. Ross, and, I am certain, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, have visited his hotel during their time in the Oireachtas. He has indicated that he has written to the energy regulator as over €9,000 has been wasted by being taken from him in the form of fixed standing charges, site charges, skip charges, wastage, and charges of minimum demand for electricity and gas over the last three months. The hotel is closed and although the reception is open, it is not open to the public. There are people answering the phones. He is being hit with these standing charges so are there any relevant emergency rules in this regard? Where is the regulator in this when utility companies can charge €9,000 in these circumstances? That is savage money.
Insurance is an even bigger problem because the business pays €100,000 per annum for the year running from January to December. The business cannot get any credit or guarantee of extra time being allowed on the policy from the insurance company. He has been told that it might look at a discount when it reviews the matter next year. Dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi. Live horse and get grass. That is ridiculous. We are talking about a very important and flagship hotel in my constituency in south Tipperary on the banks of the Suir.
Everybody else is in the same position. This is only one but whether it be pubs, restaurants or whatever they are all the same. These standing charges have crept in for these companies in the past ten or 15 years. We have a regulator for every one of them but the regulator is useless, toothless and fruitless. This man wrote to the regulator. Why is this allowed? He is not using the facilities. He does not mind paying a minimum charge but that is daylight robbery. Something has to be done in that regard if we are to recover what is now a struggling tourism industry because it has stopped. We must try to reincarnate it and get it going. From the small bed and breakfast premises to the big hotel, the people on the greenways and the blueways who are renting out boats and kayaks, the ice cream shops, the taxis or the small minibus operators, we need all of them. We are depending on ourselves. Ní neart go cur le chéile. I am appealing to people to shop local, stay local and "staycation" this year. They are telling us it is too dangerous to fly so let us support our own country and our own people.
On the VAT rate, the Taoiseach said today that he could not apply a 1% VAT rate because of EU rules. To hell with the EU rules. We are too used to kowtowing and implementing EU rules. We are Ireland and we want to recover and have a modicum of a livelihood for our wonderful families. Many of whom have ordinary family businesses that are growing and provide a massive amount of employment. The Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, knows about Kerry and the Minister, Mr. Ross, has seen it. He has also visited places in Tipperary with me, for which I thank him.
While I am at it, we used to be an-chairde ar fad; we were great friends. I wish the Minister well in his retirement and thank him for his engagement in the many issues on which I dealt with him. The only area on which we had a difference was the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill. He decided not to like me because I had a different view, and that is a pity. We need to hear all views in this House and we need to work together. I wish him a happy retirement with his wife, Ruth, and family. I hear he is writing a book. He will probably put me into it but whatever he does, I wish him luck. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
The tourism industry is in a bad state. It needs to be nurtured and stimulated but the carry-on with regard to hotels is not right. I had another hotel owner on to me who was trying to avail of the restart grant through the county council on the rates side. If one has paid the rates this year, one can avail of it. However, he did not have his taxes up to date because the doors closed suddenly on that date in March and he could not have them up to date. For this year, for people who paid by direct debit or whatever the tap was turned off on their businesses. Revenue must be flexible in this regard. I am not talking about outstanding tax bills going back over a year. I am talking about the current situation. The Minister must tell the people in Revenue to take a hands-off approach in terms of the accounts for this year. It cannot get blood out of a stone. It cannot get money out of people who are not earning money. It is as simple as that. We need the young people working in those hotels again. We need the housewives working in them again to help them put their children through college. We need them badly.
We need the ferry operators and the bus operators. I refer to the school transport buses. Private bus owners who mainly do a school transport service are still getting nothing. Anyone contracted to Bus Éireann is getting a 50% payment, which we welcome and thank the Minister for putting in place. However, the private bus owners, and there are many, service the hills and the glens of Tipperary, Kerry and elsewhere because Bus Éireann will not go to those areas. Parents organise the routes for themselves. The buses have to be tested, insured and above board, which is only right and proper. Those bus owners are not getting a penny, and because many of the drivers and operators are over 66 years of age they are not getting any other payment. It might only be a one-man operation. That is a huge lacuna and it is very unfair because we have bedlam every September with students not getting a bus ticket but what if we did not have the bus operators to bring the students to school? In my town, Denis Whelan runs a one-man operation and there are many more of them, including Mr. Tuohy in Nenagh. They do not pay rates because they have a mobile bus that is parked beside the house or in a yard. They are not in a building so they do not pay rates and therefore cannot avail of the grant. That will be a serious issue for the pupils going back to school if the bus owners do not the grant. I appeal to the Minister to look at that.
As stated by a previous speaker, the PSO funding is an important issue also.
With regard to driver tests, if one can take a taxi why can one not do a driver test? I know of hundreds of people who are waiting for driver tests or for theory tests, although I believe they are starting up again now. When are the National Car Test, NCT, centres in my county going to reopen and will the lifts be working when they do? People are driving around now and we are not sure about their cars. I support the NCT 100%. I especially support inspection of the undercarriage: the chassis, brakes, steering, wheels, stub axles and everything else in the area underneath. This is vital. If the lifts are not working many of us could be driving defective vehicles. We are paying for the NCT but it is a farce because that is the most important part. It includes the steering rack and so on. Will the Minister answer those few questions if he can?
I wish the Deputy's wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Máirín, well. Máirín has a very bright career in front of her. It may be as good as the Deputy's. If he eventually decides to retire I have no doubt she will be sitting in his seat. She will be very welcome.
The Deputy should get his lawyers on to me before it is published. That is all I will say. I do, however, wish the Deputy great success and happiness. I hope he moderates and radically changes his views. That will be difficult for him to achieve but I will be watching from the sidelines and cheering him on when he becomes a moderate middle-of-the-road politician with liberal views, tolerance and all of those great things which he finds very difficult.
I do not think the Deputy is interested in intellectual pursuits. I will address those issues further in another place.
I will now address the issue of insurance, about which the Deputy asked. The Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, and I met with representatives of Insurance Ireland to highlight and discuss some of the difficulties being experienced by the sector, some of which the Deputy referred to a few minutes ago.
With regard to the failure to pay out under business interruption cover, which is one of the big problems, policies are not designed to cover pandemics. The Deputy will be aware of this. Insurance works on the basis that only a small percentage of clients make claims. Paying for a pandemic would, unfortunately, require payments to as many as 100% of clients in certain categories. No insurance company could remain solvent were it to pay out to 100% of its clients. Companies can only pay out where pandemics are specifically covered by the policy. This is only the case for a small number.
Insurance Ireland has made a commitment that, where businesses are closed and this has changed the level of cover required, a pro ratarebate will be given in the form of cash. It has asked insurers to sign up to this measure and expect it to happen. Chief executive officers say the number of inquiries is actually low and that there have been no rejections of applications to adjust cover that is not required during closure.
No, I am on my own. I will be brief enough. We need to acknowledge what clubs across the country have done. They have brought shopping to people who have been cocooning. This was especially the case for GAA clubs both in my area and right around the country. It is not only them however. Many other clubs have put their shoulder to the wheel and helped those people who were having a difficult time. We should acknowledge that and praise the work they did. I welcome what the Ministers have done with regard to the likes of the League of Ireland. It is important.
I have a few brief questions for the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin. Affiliations and funds in GAA clubs around the country are low. Indeed, that applies to soccer clubs, rugby clubs and all sports. Is there anything available to help them to keep ticking over and keep the lights on? Regarding the sports capital grants for 2020, when does he expect the programme to be open to clubs? I smiled when I heard Deputy Bríd Smith. If there is no pitch between the two canals, I wish some of them would come down the country. Sometimes we have to join teams together for smaller clubs so they would be quite welcome.
Turning to the Minister, I wish him well. When the clubs and all sports are getting up and running again, and in line with what Deputy Mattie McGrath said, when does he envisage the driver testing resuming for youngsters who might be starting college in September? They have the theory test done and have completed enough lessons. When can the driver testing get up and running again?
There is another matter I wish to raise. I do not expect the Minister to be aware of it but perhaps he is. At Dublin Airport there are proposals to lay off 30 staff from Boeing. There are 19 out of 23 engineers. Funnily enough, the Irish engineers were the first to get competence on the Boeing 737 MAX. The Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, issues the maintenance approval and then they have to get separate certificates for the different aeroplanes. Some engineers would have come here from England and got it. They are using it in Gatwick. It is ironic that nobody will be laid off in Gatwick even though they would not be Irish engineers. With Brexit approaching is the IAA aware that the E145 maintenance approval, as it is called, is being used in Gatwick? At the same time there is a threat that hangars will be closing in Dublin. While we must bear in mind that approximately 62% of the leasing of aircraft comes through this country, the staff were the first trained in Ireland.
Nobody denies that there are difficulties in the aviation industry, but there will also be opportunities. Can we ensure that those highly trained Irish people are not sacrificial lambs whereby places like Gatwick will stay open ahead of those in this country? It is ironic that many of the engineers in Gatwick were only taken on lately compared with the people here in Ireland. I ask the Minister to talk to the IAA about this E145 maintenance approval. I am not alleging anything, but I am saying that it would be worth examining. It is being used in England and if there is a hard Brexit how does that operate when it is a European approval? We have engineers here who are competent. They were the first to do it and they are flown all over the world. It gives them the right to do that once they have it. It is looking like they will be at home.
The Deputy asked about the financial situation for clubs. We have been engaging with the national governing bodies through the sports monitoring group and with the Federation of Irish Sport, the Olympic Federation of Ireland and representatives of athletes. We know funding will be needed to try to get sport in Ireland past this phase. As part of that, we envisage that an element of that funding will go to a resilience fund for local sports clubs. How that will be administered has yet to be decided. I would envisage that it will go through Sport Ireland and that the national governing bodies will make a pitch for the clubs that are most exposed and in danger of going out of business.
We know that every club could do with a financial boost. We also know that for some clubs, if they do not get it, it will be the end of the road. That is what we want to avoid initially and that is what we are working on.
On the sports capital programme, earlier in the year we were pretty much ready to go with a new round. However, there is a transition in Government circles but Covid is also a significant factor. The question that needs to be asked is if there is a pressing need at the moment for a sports capital programme. Are clubs looking to expand their capital situations in terms of investments? The problem for most clubs is very much about current funding. These factors need to be considered. We are in a position to open up a new scheme quite soon. Again, we will need to see how the situation on the current front evolves in that regard.
The current board of the FAI and the changing regime there is very sympathetic and much more supportive of the League of Ireland than the last regime. Although it does not have the resources to do what it would like to do, it certainly has political support.
When the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, and I met the League of Ireland clubs, it was quite apparent they represented the beating heart of Irish football but also that of communities. They are just too important to ignore, let go or in any way not support. I am very hopeful. I do not know the result of this evening's meeting. It may have been rather difficult because there is constantly a funding problem. I have absolutely no doubt, however, that there is goodwill there. There is a great deal more goodwill than there was under the old regime. The break in regime will help. Funding will be a problem but we are very supportive of the League of Ireland. We are looking for a package for sport in general. We hope that we will be able to support the League of Ireland in some way out of that. I am not making any promises of any sort but that is our ambition.
On the aviation issue which the Deputy raised, I will convey his views to the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA. I can go no further than that at this point.
On driver testing, I presume the Deputy is referring to the actual testing of drivers and people queuing up. He is right. There is a big problem. It is very obvious what the problem is. The oral testing obviously can start earlier as it is easy enough. I really could not understand why it could not be done earlier than this. However, that was the advice we got. It is obviously one of the last things that will fall when restrictions are lifted because it is, as far as I know, almost impossible to carry out a driver test without sitting beside or very close to the driver tester. That is obviously one of the biggest health risks going. It is a great pity but we cannot sort it overnight without breaching the social distance rules in existence. When NPHET recommends that driver testing should go ahead, I will be the last person to stand in its way.