Seanad debates

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

4:00 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to the House. I wish him well in his new portfolio.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Sport plays a unique role in the lives of Irish people and its value to the nation simply cannot be over-emphasised, in terms of raising our health levels, in helping to give us a sense of ourselves and in boosting our morale. Active participation in sport and physical recreation contributes enormously to the physical and mental well-being of the individual, and by extension, of the whole community.

Inactive lifestyles are widespread in Ireland and, indeed, throughout the world. The challenge now and for the foreseeable future is to extend people's years of life free from illness or disability. Sport has the potential to enrich all of our lives and everyone should recognise the benefits that physical activity can have.

Of course, physical activity can have other important benefits not just for the individual but also for society. Sport develops the personal skills of individuals. Values such as tolerance, self-discipline, team spirit and strength of character are demanded, practised and promoted. In this way, sport serves as an educational tool, both in schools and colleges and in the wider community.

Given the benefits associated with sporting activities, the Government regards expenditure on sport as important for the social and economic development of the country. These benefits arise in a wide range of areas including health and well-being, social and cultural development, education, personal development, tourism and the economy. It can also play a valuable role in tackling social exclusion and this is particularly true for young people.

Increasing the levels of participation in sport is vital to ensuring that these benefits continue and this is one of the key functions of the Irish Sports Council. The Irish Sports Council was established in 1999 and has a statutory role in the promotion, development and co-ordination of sport. It has six key functions under the Irish Sports Council Act. These include improving standards in high performance sport, increasing participation rates in sport, facilitating standards of fair play, combating doping, producing research and communicating information on sport. The council is funded by my Department and since its establishment in 1999 it has received Government funding of almost €416 million with a further €46.8 million allocated in 2011. The council has been central to developing sporting ability at the elite level, while at the same time driving participation levels in conjunction with the national governing bodies of sport, local sports partnerships, the Irish Institute of Sport, Coaching Ireland and the Olympic and Paralympic Councils.

One of the council's key functions is to increase participation rates. The Irish Sports Monitor Report 2009, which was produced by the Economic and Social Research Institute on behalf of the Irish Sports Council, deals with the measurement of adult participation in sport and physical activity in Ireland in 2009. Overall the report has good news, as it shows improvements in key measures. It shows that there were increases in the levels of physical activity in 2009, a recovery from 2008 which was badly affected by the onset of recession. The proportion of adults who actively participated in sport increased significantly between 2008 and 2009, from 30.8% to 33.5%.

The council is continuing to implement specific elements of its participation strategy, including the development and implementation of the code of ethics and code of practice for children's sport in Ireland; the Buntús Programme; the support of the national governing bodies of sport, including those of the three major field sports - GAA, FAI and IRFU; the women in sport initiative; sports inclusion development officers; and the Go for Life programme. On the high performance front, Irish Sports Council initiatives include high performance funding and performance planning; the international carding scheme; Team Ireland Golf Trust and the Irish Institute of Sport.

At its meeting on 21 June, the Government approved the strategy for developing the national sports campus, in particular the proposals for proceeding the development of facilities viz. a national indoor training arena and a partnership development strategy with the GAA, FAI, IRFU and Irish Hockey Association. It is intended to update and publish the five-year national sports facilities strategy in the coming months to prioritise areas for future investment and grant assistance at national, regional and local levels.

I am chairing a high-level co-ordinating group which is identifying opportunities for Ireland across the sports, tourism, cultural and enterprise sectors from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The biggest potential benefits around the London Games have been identified in the enterprise and tourism sectors and these are being actively pursued. Enterprise Ireland is pursuing opportunities for Irish business and the tourism agencies are working closely with a range of partners at home and overseas to increase the tourism opportunities. The cultural agencies are also developing proposals for a cultural programme around the games.

The potential to attract international athletes to train in Ireland in the lead-up to London 2012 is another issue that the co-ordinating group is looking at. A number of international teams have chosen the National Aquatic Centre as a training base which is a reflection of the calibre of the facility. My Department is working on attracting other teams to train here. A difficulty that arises in attracting teams is that the UK is offering financial help to international teams to train in the UK in the lead-up to the games. The London 2012 co-ordinating group will continue to meet in the coming year to maximise opportunities across each of the sectors.

As Minister of State with responsibility for both sport and tourism, I am determined to ensure that Ireland's position as a leading location for international sporting events is further developed and enhanced. The programme for Government includes a provision that event tourism will be prioritised to continue to bring major fairs and events to Ireland, such as the Volvo Ocean Race and Solheim Cup. Tourism is a significant export industry for Ireland, with in the region of €3 billion in foreign revenue and €1.3 billion in domestic tourism revenue earned last year. The tourism and hospitality sector employs 180,000 people. The hosting of major events, including sports events, is an important element of our overall tourism strategy. There are a number of advantages associated with encouraging sports-related tourism. First, it gives us an opportunity to show that a small country can host big events, be it the Tall Ships, Volvo Ocean Race or more recently held Solheim Cup. Ireland has shown that it can host these events in an efficient and capable manner. We also provide an additional benefit when we host such events, namely, the Irish love of social and sporting occasions. A live audience in Ireland guarantees a sense of enjoyment and atmosphere that gives any sporting event a greater impact.

Second, hosting important sporting events allows us to provide a great showcase for Ireland as a country. Many millions around the world watch big sporting events on their television screens and this provides a great opportunity for people to view a positive image of Ireland. We want people to choose Ireland as a holiday destination and the media coverage of sports tourism events helps us to put Ireland on many thousands of travel itineraries. There is also a third advantage in respect of some sports in that hosting big events in this country encourages tourists to follow in the footsteps of their heroes. This is particularly the case with golf, as men and women golfers will be inspired to play in the country where the top professionals competed for the Ryder Cup, the Irish Open or Solheim Cup.

Other types of sporting events, for example, a triathlon, which takes place against a backdrop of our natural landscapes and built heritage, are a valuable advertisement for general tourism when broadcast on overseas television. Failte Ireland continues to support the sports tourism sector under the festivals and events initiative and has allocated €3.8 million in 2011 for direct financial support to festivals and events, including sports. We look forward to the return of the Volvo Ocean Race in 2012, which on this occasion will not stop over in Galway but will have its finale there. We will also welcome the World Youth Championship sailing event to Dún Laoghaire next year.

The sport sector is a major contributor to the economy, a contribution which includes sports tourism, ticket sales, subscriptions and the cost of playing sport, together with the purchase of sports equipment and an economic value of time given by volunteers. There is also an extensive financial dividend to be obtained through the success of major sporting events, in particular those with an international dimension. Through a variety of actions and investments, Ireland is developing a reputation as a destination to play and watch sports. Stadia such as the Aviva, Croke Park and Thomond Park attract international and domestic tourists in large numbers throughout the year. The targeting of major international sporting events attracts tourists and also showcases the country in the best possible light.

The assessment of economic impact of sport in Ireland report which was prepared by Indecon international economic consultants for the Irish Sports Council last November shows that there is a significant return on Government investment and expenditure on sport in Ireland. Based on figures for 2008, it is estimated that overall Government expenditure on grants, capital investment and other sport-related expenditures amounted to €618.3 million. However, the government sector as a whole received a total of €922.4 million in revenues from taxes on sport-supported expenditures and incomes and from sports facilities. This implies a net income to the government sector arising from the sport economy amounting to €304.1 million.

For every €100 of Government expenditure, the Government receives approximately €149 in the form of taxes and other income arising from sport-related economic activity. The sport sector is also very important from an employment perspective. The Irish Sports Council, through its grant funding to the national governing bodies, supports a large number of jobs throughout the country, including approximately 1,500 jobs created through the national governing bodies of sport and the local sports partnerships. Safeguarding existing jobs and supporting job creation can only be achieved by promoting the strength and vibrancy of the sector. I am seeking at every opportunity to do just that.

Under the sports capital programme administered by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, funding is allocated towards the provision of sports facilities at national, regional and local level. It is the primary vehicle for promoting the development of sports and recreational facilities in Ireland. The programme has transformed the sporting landscape with improved facilities in virtually every village, town and city. The facilities funded range from new equipment for the smallest clubs to regional multisport centres and national centres of sporting excellence.

Over 7,500 projects providing a range of essential sports facilities have now benefited from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocation in that time to over €743 million. These grants continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring the provision of modern, high-quality facilities that attract more people to participate in sporting activities.

In allocating this funding, special targeting and priority is given to projects in RAPID, CLÁR and local drugs taskforce areas. In the most recent round of the sports capital programme in 2008, these projects were permitted to have a lower level of minimum own funding available with 20% for projects in CLÁR areas and 10% for RAPID and local drugs taskforce areas in comparison with the normal 30% towards their project. They also received extra marks during the assessment process. In this round of the programme, successful projects under this scheme in RAPID areas also qualified for additional top-up funding of up to 30% of their sports capital programme allocation, from the then Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, in addition to their sports capital programme allocation.

Through these measures, the sports capital programme has invested over €150 million in projects in designated disadvantaged areas. In turn, top-up arrangements in RAPID and CLÁR areas have allowed further allocations of more than €22 million to be made. While no new round of the programme has been advertised since 2008, it is still active with €33 million being provided in the Estimates to fund the programme for 2011. I am looking at the option with regard to a new round of the sports capital programme, but no decision has yet been made.

In addition to local sports projects, the Government contributed over €113 million towards the redevelopment of the Croke Park stadium. With a capacity of over 82,000 Croke Park is the third largest stadium in Europe. The stadium also makes a huge contribution to the economic and cultural life of Dublin.

The Government also provided €191 million towards the total costs of €470 million for the construction of the 50,000-seat Aviva stadium. Since opening in May 2010, it has been operating at full capacity as a sports venue and as a preferred venue for conferences, events and business meetings. While the Aviva is a state-of-the-art stadium, it is also important to Dublin's economy in its role in attracting tourists to the capital for events such as the Europa League final, the Six Nations rugby internationals and high-profile concerts.

In June 2011, I made a one-off allocation of €1.25 million to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association to fund basic facilities and accommodate the growing number of female members. Each club can qualify for a maximum grant of €25,000 per club.

In July, local authorities were invited to submit applications for shovel-ready projects for sports facilities in local authority owned public areas to increase participation in sport of individuals who may not necessarily be affiliated to sports clubs. To date 60 projects have been approved for grant aid under this initiative, with allocations totalling €3.3 million.

Under the local authority swimming pool programme, administered by the Department, grant aid to a maximum of €3.8 million has been provided to local authorities towards the capital costs of new swimming pools or the refurbishment of existing pools. This is subject in both cases to the total grant not exceeding 80% of the eligible cost of the project or, in the case of projects located in disadvantaged areas, 90% of the eligible cost.

Under the programme's guidelines, there are four principal stages in a swimming pool project following the submission of a feasibility study. These, in order of progress, comprise preliminary report, contract documents, tender and construction. The Department, with its technical advisers, the Office of Public Works, evaluates each stage and local authorities cannot proceed to the next stage of a project unless prior approval issues from my Department.

Since 2000, 58 projects have been or are being dealt with under the programme, of which 46 have been completed and three have passed tender report stage. Nine other projects are at various stages of the programme. Of the 46 pools completed and opened under the current round, 14 are new pools, 21 are replacement pools and 11 are refurbishments. The 12 remaining pools at various stages in the process consist of five new, three replacements and four refurbishments. The total expenditure of €146.21 million under the programme from 2000 to September 2011 has leveraged a total investment of €412 million in respect of the pools approved grant aid. No decision has been made regarding the next round of the programme. I recently announced that a total of €4.54 million had been allocated for energy updates, water conservation and enhanced disabled access to 17 local authorities in respect of 19 pools. However, this is not a new round of the local authority swimming pool programme.

This is an historic week in Irish sport. On Tuesday and Friday, the Irish soccer team will play and, hopefully, qualify for the European Championship. The Irish rugby team will play on Saturday. This week, some of our boxers will qualify for the Olympics. Our golfers have met with success. Having so many golfers in the world's top ten is a credit to our small country. Our never say die attitude is great and we are lucky to have wonderful sports people. Sports lift the country and its economy.

I wish the soccer team the best of luck, as qualifying would give the country and the economy a great boost. I wish the rugby team the best for next Saturday. I hope it can beat our old enemy, Wales, in the semi-final, and win the final to win the world cup - what it would do for our country and our economy. I compliment our golfers on the excellent way in which they have performed. They leave a small country of 4.5 million people for America and beat the best. We should be proud of our sports people. I could go on discussing boxing, athletics and those who represent our country.

We are proud of those who participate in sport. Sport lifts everyone. I cannot forget our volunteers. This is the European year of the volunteer. What would happen to Ireland if we had none? What would happen to the GAA, soccer and rugby? If we did not have volunteers, sport would not work. On behalf of the Government and the people, I thank the volunteers.

Everywhere I go, I hear people being critical of everyone. They are known as hurlers on the ditch. We have many green fields. If those people want to get off the ditch and play a sport or volunteer, we have plenty of work for them to do.

Senators:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Well said. I thank the Minister of State. The only comment he left out was that he hopes Mayo will win the football next year.

Senator Ó Domhnaill has ten minutes. It was agreed on the Order of Business that the main spokespersons would have ten minutes to contribute while other Senators would ask two questions at a time.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, to the Chamber. His was a passionate address, particularly the last minutes of it. It was like the all-Ireland football final when Dublin overtook Kerry in the last couple of hundred seconds. Given the passion at the end of his speech, I hope he will tog out for the Oireachtas Gaelic football team when it plays the sports journalists in Croke Park on Saturday. The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, is looking for him. As the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, I hope he will play his part.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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If I must play, I will play.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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We might even allow him to score a point. I understand that Senator Eamonn Coghlan is in goals. Senator Harte will represent us at another sporting occasion elsewhere in the world. There are certainly sports people in the Chamber.

This is an important debate. Often, sectors like sports and the arts get squeezed, particularly at a time of economic necessity when people are watching how every euro is spent. The Minister of State referred to this. Sport has been important since the foundation of the State, from Gaelic games and Cumann Lúthcleas Gael to the sports in which we are now achieving, such as rugby and athletics, in which Senator Eamonn Coghlan gained worldwide acclaim representing Ireland in European, world and Olympic games.

The Minister of State is correct to state that as a small nation we have punched way above our weight. I am delighted that over the past 14 or 15 years a Ministry has been responsible for sport and the people in charge have included my old friend from Donegal, Jim McDaid, when he was first appointed to Cabinet in 1997. The Minister of State is following in these footsteps.

It is heartening that approximately €1,250 million has been spent on sport during the past 14 or 15 years. A cornerstone in the development of sport was the establishment of the Irish Sports Council in 1999, with the vision to establish a council with the focus and determination and outlook to develop sport in the Republic and also work with our counterparts North of the Border. The Irish Sports Council has received almost €500 million since its inception in 1999.

The Minister of State referred to the sports capital programme. While the Irish Sports Council was established to examine the manner in which sports were organised and developed and to work with the national governing bodies, there was also a need to develop facilities throughout the country so people could train in facilities on a par with what was available in other parts of the world. The sports capital programme was introduced in 1998 and almost 5,500 individual projects have benefited from the scheme. Although the scheme is closed to new applications, €33 million is being spent this year. I would like to see the scheme reopened. The scheme was also closed last year when we were in government and I fought with the previous Minister. The scheme should be reopened then because there remains a need to channel money in a targeted way to sports facilities throughout the country to areas which may not have had facilities developed.

I acknowledge the €3.8 million which was approved by the Minister of State's predecessor and was signed off by the Minister of State. I remember raising the matter in the House on the Adjournment and the commitment the Minister of State gave at the time to sign off on it. I acknowledge this. Senator Eamonn Coghlan will be delighted to hear this €3.8 million went to the Finn Valley Athletics Club in Stranorlar to develop a swimming pool project under the local authority swimming pool development programme and the Department's swimming pool development programme. The project is going from strength to strength and last Friday, a new track was opened at the same club, of which I am a member. We are very grateful for the funding made available through the programme. I hope the swimming pool programme will be reopened also, albeit on a more targeted basis towards areas which may not have benefited in the past.

The local sports partnership programme co-ordinates sports on an excellent basis at a local level bringing all of the stakeholders together. I am a director of the Donegal local sports partnership and I was a founding member during my days on Donegal County Council and on the board of Údarás na Gaeltachta. It brings together a vision to allow not merely one or two sports to develop but every sport in a geographical area on a county or city basis. It is very important to have continuity of support for the local sports partnership structure. Local sports partnerships at the coalface of sports development and participation and work with volunteers on a local level. It is important that they are supported.

The Minister of State mentioned that one of the objectives of local sports partnerships is to examine the existing network of facilities throughout the country. If the Minister of State were to take this report when it is published in a few months time and examine the map of where the facilities exist, he could tailor the sports capital programme to the lack of coverage in certain areas. The days of the €2 million, €3 million and €4 million projects are gone because clubs will not be able to get co-financing from banks. Even raising money locally is very difficult. Smaller grants may need to be made available for developing existing facilities or building new facilities in the current economic climate.

It is important to focus on sport expenditure even though some may argue that it would be better spent on transport or schools or other competing demands. I refer to the Indecon report, Assessment of Economic Impact of Sport in Ireland, submitted to the Irish Sports Council last November. The report sets out in clear, precise terms the value of sport to the community. The sports sector delivers value for money and identifiable returns on investment for Government funds. On a total state investment in 2008 of €618.3 million, the Exchequer received €922.7 million in taxes generated by the sports sector. For every €100 investment by the Government, it received €149 in sports related taxes. This is worth remembering when making the argument for funding.

The report also shows that more than 38,000 people are employed in the sports sector, 2% of the total national workforce. This professional workforce complements the contribution of the 270,000 volunteers whose contribution in economic terms is between €322 and €582 million annually. Irish households spent a total €1,886 million on sport and sport related goods in 2008, equivalent to 2% of the overall value of consumer spending in the Irish economy. Sport related spending contributes €1,830 million to the Irish economy value-added, equivalent to 1.4% of economy wide-GDP.

These statistics show that sport is providing a dividend. For every €1 in funding given to sport, the return is €1.50. This is not to mention the health benefits of sport. Participation in sport contributes to the well-being and health of the nation and of the individual. Dependency on pharmaceutical drugs and other forms of medication could be decreased through participation in sport. In some countries, GPs prescribe a visit to the green gym instead of prescribing medicine. We need to think outside the box with regard to the health benefits of sport.

I have referred to the sports capital programme and the national swimming pool programme and my views are clear. For more than 100 years the GAA has been one of the greatest sporting organisations in the country. The investment of €113 million of taxpayers' money into Croke Park is reaping significant dividends for the nation and for every county. It is unfortunate that neither Mayo nor Donegal won any medals there this year but we live in hope for next year. I attended the Donegal county final which was played on Sunday in Ballybofey. One of the all-time great footballers, Michael Murphy, scored 1-7 for his club and they won 1-8 to 9 points against a very good St. Michael's team.

One of the all-time GAA greats in Donegal was buried today, Jim McHugh, a father of the great Martin McHugh and the great James McHugh. I extend my sympathies to the family whom I met at the wake last night. He was a man who played for Killybegs in the 1952 Donegal county final when he won a gold medal. Two of his sons and his third son, Enda, followed in his footsteps by representing club, county, province and country for the Gaelic Athletic Association. Young Mark is also a player for Donegal.

I turn now to what is a very live issue. Without going into what is happening in rugby and soccer at the weekend, Jimmy will be representing Donegal in soccer while we will be playing for the Oireachtas team in Croke Park on Saturday. I am sure Senator Coughlan will have more to say in regard to the Olympic Games 2012. When I was a councillor in Donegal I maintained that we should provide training facilities for teams to train in Ireland.

Previous Ministers with responsibility for sport let down that dream. More preparatory work should have been done, in conjunction with the Irish Sports Council, to develop Ireland as a training base for Olympic teams. Teams from over 200 countries that compete in the Olympic Games could come here. We are just 30 minutes by air from the centre of London and given the facilities we have available we could provide training facilities to any of the teams. I do not feel the opportunity is lost yet. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider the situation. I do not know how many teams or coaches have visited Ireland to look at training facilities, but I know that before the Beijing Olympics, our team manager, Patsy McGonagle, was out there two or three years in advance to check out training facilities that could be used by Irish athletes. We can provide training facilities and should not close that door but should embrace that opportunity.

I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure that every financial support possible is given to our elite athletes in the lead-up to the London 2012 games, because this is our greatest opportunity ever to achieve maximum success at an Olympic Games. We have the maximum opportunity because we are only 30 minutes away by air and our climate is similar. I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure our athletes are supported financially by the State over the next 12 to 18 months in the lead-up to the games. They are training currently and some have attained the qualifying standards. I hope the State stands by them over the next 12 challenging months as they prepare for London in 2012. They deserve our full support.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Pat O'Neill.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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Is mór an onóir dom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Seanad inniu. I have been a sportsman all my life, having played Gaelic football for my county at minor and senior level and having captained my local football team, Cooley Kickhams, to win the senior championship in Louth. I also played soccer, tennis, badminton and golf in more recent years and am, perhaps, considered an all-round average sportsman. That said, I am disappointed I was not invited to play with the Oireachtas next weekend in Croke Park.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps an invitation could be extended through the Chair.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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Maybe I am not too late and there will be some drop outs.

It was a great honour when the Taoiseach appointed me as Fine Gael spokesperson in the Seanad on tourism and sport. It is a very interesting and diverse brief and we are now at a time when the importance of sport is being recognised for many reasons. We recognise that sport can be extremely important in lifting the national spirit. Ireland's magnificent victories over Australia and, more recently, Italy during the rugby world cup have provided an enormous feel-good factor, as does the success of our Irish boxers, currently competing for places at next year's Olympic Games in the world championships taking place in Azerbaijan. The progress of Shamrock Rovers in European football is a wonderful development and highlights how league of Ireland soccer has progressed over the years. With fewer of our young people gaining contracts at clubs in England, it is important the Department looks at creating more educational courses that are tied in with the FAI and the League of Ireland.

We generally associate sport with the younger generation, but I would like to recognise the more mature sportsmen on the Irish senior amateur golf team, chosen from the four provinces, who recently won the triple crown at Woodhall Spa in England. This was a magnificent achievement and it was their fourth year in a row to win this. One of those occasions took place in Westport, either last year or the year before. A pat on the back for our more senior sportsmen.

Ireland's premier position in the world of horse racing was highlighted to a global audience last May with the visit of Queen Elizabeth II. During her visit to the country, Queen Elizabeth chose to visit the National Stud, where she was shown a parade of stallions, including the stud's flagship sire, Invincible Spirit. The Queen met a number of Irish trainers and jockeys and make private visits to two other stud farms. The message was clear: Ireland was at the top of the game when it came to thoroughbred racing. The Queen's interest in Irish racing gave the industry the kind of global positive publicity that money cannot buy. We are indebted to her for her keen interest in one of Ireland's most important industries. It was a pity our equestrian team recently failed, by a narrow margin in Madrid, to qualify for the next year's Olympic Games.

I refer to our indigenous sports, hurling and Gaelic football. The two recent all-Ireland finals were spectacular showcases of skill, courage and pride. Last year's all-Ireland hurling final had the second highest viewing figures of any programme broadcast in Ireland last year. This year's all-Ireland finals attracted full houses. I was honoured to be a spectator at both matches.

Last April, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, addressed the GAA annual congress and referred to the importance of the GAA, describing the association as an intrinsic part of the fabric of our society. He also referred to the sense of community, identity and pride instilled by the GAA across our country. I pay tribute to the immense contribution made by many organisations to all sports. I also pay tribute to the many men and women who give of their time organising our sports on a voluntary basis. As the Minister of State said, these volunteers are often forgotten and not fully appreciated.

The Taoiseach, a great footballer himself, described the Fine Gael attitude to sport when he said:

Sport combines a healthy approach to competitiveness and the promotion of the concept of fair play. This combination is extraordinary and its influence plays an important role in the education of young people. Leadership and respect for others are two of the important themes of Gaelic games and all sports and these are qualities that translate right across into community work and everyday life regardless of where you live. I would ask that we continue to encourage young people to become involved in sport and to learn that honest effort has its own reward in sport, as in life.

Fine Gael recognises the importance of sport and the importance of the GAA in particular in Irish society. There is growing recognition that the importance of sport is not limited to its social or community aspects but is vital in the context of public health.

Obesity is an increasing problem in society. In particular, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who are morbidly or severely obese. The consequences of obesity are manifold and it can create a range of health problems, including type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer and premature death.

The statistics suggest that 38% of Irish people are overweight and 23% are obese. At least 120,000 Irish people are severely obese. Recent studies estimate there are approximately 300,000 children in Ireland who are overweight or obese, which is alarming. The number of teenage boys who are overweight has increased from 6% in 1990 to 19% in 2008. The obesity problem described by some as an epidemic has serious consequences for our health services. The Taoiseach recently stated that his Government understands that sport has major potential to contribute to the development of a healthier society. Our goal in Government is to ensure that all people are encouraged and given opportunities to participate in sport and to enjoy all the benefits sport can bring through the development of a healthy lifestyle, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

A special budget measure was introduced in 2001 to increase the level of participation by younger people in three major field sports and, to date, the GAA has received over €26 million under this scheme. The Government is committed to continuing this support, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, recently announced the 2011 allocations. Earlier this month, the Minister of State announced funding for 51 local authority-backed sports projects across the country. The money allocated by the Government to local authorities for sporting projects amounted to almost €3 million. Funding was allocated to projects that will boost participation in sports, such as new playing surfaces, outdoor gym equipment, fitness trails, floodlighting and refurbishment of changing facilities.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Minister of State-----

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is almost up.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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Cúpla nóiméad eile, le do thoil.

I thank the Minister of State for his recent allocation of €109,000 to be spent this year on improving sporting facilities in the RAPID and CLÁR areas of Dundalk. As mentioned by Senator Ó Domhnaill, since 1998 almost €740 million has been allocated under the sports capital programme in more than 7,400 separate allocations. Financial constraints mean there is no new round of the sports capital programme. However, €33 million has been provided for 2011 to meet payments in respect of projects that have been allocated funding under the programme. While we are not in a position to have a new round of the sports capital programme, we are instead focusing on a targeted measure for local authority facilities. The programme for Government provides that future sports funding should prioritise projects that encourage greater participation in sport on a local and national level. This will be a central focus for any new round of the programme.

While funding is low at present, we must acknowledge that sporting facilities have improved significantly throughout our country in recent years. A great deal of Exchequer funds have been invested in this area, resulting in the transformation of sports facilities around the country, including the improvement of dressing rooms, pitches, lights and equipment. As the Minister of State mentioned, we have also seen the redevelopment of landmark stadiums including Croke Park, Thomond Park and the Aviva Stadium at Lansdowne Road.

Participation in any sport has obvious benefits in terms of health and fitness, self-esteem and personal well-being. Sporting achievements provide a morale boost for our country at large, focus international attention on our country and promote our image as an attractive place to visit and invest in. The recent success of the Irish Open at Killarney in August and the very successful Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle certainly gave us national and international publicity that we could not have bought and will enhance and boost the Irish tourism industry worldwide.

As Fine Gael spokesperson on sport in the Seanad, I am pleased to say that my party is firmly committed to the continued development of sport in the country. We recognise that in a time of economic difficulty, sporting events and successes are vital in lifting the country's spirits.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is well up.

5:00 am

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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Bomaite amháin eile, le do thoil.

They are a proud reflection of our nation's potential for success. We appreciate the important contribution that sport has made to building a healthy nation. Our goal is to promote greater participation in sport.

I take this opportunity to wish our international rugby team, who are doing us proud in faraway New Zealand, every success next Saturday and for the remainder of the World Cup. Who knows what might happen? If I may be parochial, I wish my neighbour Rob Kearney - who played for the same GAA club as myself, the famous Cooley Kickhams, although not at the same time - another star performance for the country next weekend.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I would like to concentrate on the importance of sport to society in helping to deal with depression and suicide. I compliment the Government on the announcement of a national sports campus on 21 June and the Minister of State's announcement of a national sports facility strategy earlier. Forward planning is needed in sport to provide facilities and so on. The Minister of State is enthusiastic about everything he takes on and sport will benefit from this. I join him in complimenting volunteers. Without them, there would be no sport in the country.

Sport can benefit a person's mental health. Earlier this year, former US President, Bill Clinton, said that Ireland's mission is not just to recover but to keep our heads on straight while we are recovering. The national guidelines for physical activity in Ireland published in 2009 point to physical exercise as key to reducing levels of depression. With the rate of suicide skyrocketing, we must take notice of anything that can help to facilitate better mental health in Irish people. Aside from the more obvious benefits to playing sport such as keeping fit, physical exercise can release endorphins which combat a negative outlook.

In the more isolated regions of Ireland, sport helps to form a community. Teammates stand together in victory and in defeat. It gives back to young men the sense of pride unemployment has taken from them. As Dr. Olivia McElwee, writing in the Journal of the Irish College of General Practitioners, summarised: "Being made unemployed, is to be cast adrift at sea. An important avenue of social interaction is terminated and there is a huge sense of abandonment and a loss of that sense of belonging." Sport is an anchor and it creates a sense of comradeship that outside forces such as unemployment cannot extinguish.

Pride in the jersey is something on which rural communities thrive. It is an incentive for young people to stay in the area which helps to combat isolation. It also provides occupation for those who are unemployed which cannot be underestimated in its value. Sport, therefore, continues to be something that not only benefits people physically, but also their mental well-being, the importance of which cannot be underestimated, particularly during a recession. One need only reflect on the Irish rugby team's efforts in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup to see how sport can raise spirits, as mentioned by Senator Brennan and others. The excellent performance of the Irish team against the goliath of Australia gave us all a boost and, hopefully, they will do the same again next weekend. This exemplifies the positive impact sport can have on mental health. Could the Minister of State put funding in place for a job scheme or an educational scheme to keep our top GAA players in this country? It is disappointing, especially for small rural parishes, when their best players are forced to emigrate in the current economic climate.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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I too am particularly delighted for obvious reasons that the Minister of State with responsibility for sport is present.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The Senator is a perfect example of how well this country has done abroad. I take this opportunity to compliment him. He gave us all a lot of enjoyment over the years. At the time he was in full flight, we did not have the facilities we have now. He put Ireland on the map, particularly in athletics.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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Go raibh míle maith agat. Having listened to the contributions of the Minister of State and Senator Ó Domhnaill, the three of us are singing off the same hymn sheet.

As a former athlete and one who proudly represented Ireland at the highest level around the world, I know at first hand how important sport is to the people of Ireland and how important the success of Irish sportsmen and women abroad is to the diaspora. When it comes to sport, the Irish public expects, and demands, nothing but the best. For many years, I enjoyed the support of tens of thousands of Irish fans cramming arenas all over North America, waving their tricolour flags and screaming their lungs out in anticipation of another win for Ireland. I cannot recall any other athlete I competed against, be he an American, German, New Zealander or British, enjoying the same support I received from the Irish aboard. The Irish are fanatical, loyal supporters and again we witness this every week at the Rugby World Cup which is taking place halfway around the world.

People can say where they were the moment President John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when the Twin Towers were terrorised. The same goes for iconic Irish sporting achievements. People recall where they were when Ronnie Delany won gold in Melbourne, Stephen Roche rode to victory in the Tour de France, Michael Carruth won his Olympic gold, even in the Minister of State's beloved sport when Ray Houghton scored the winning goal against England, Packie Bonner saved that penalty-----

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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I was there.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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-----Barry McGuigan won the world boxing title, and yours truly, glanced, clenched his fists and ran by that Russian and won a world title. People to this day recall to me where they were. We know the pride and euphoria felt in our parishes and counties all over Ireland when their favourite team wins. We will remember where we were for years to come when the Dubs won the All-Ireland title a number of weeks ago and the Minister of State will certainly remember when Mayo wins in the near future.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I hope I am around.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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This year alone sports success has brought big smiles to the faces of Irish people worldwide, in particular, the major golf wins of Rory McIIroy and Darren Clarke, our rugby team, our cricket team, Katie Taylor and our other European boxing champions and our Special Olympic athletes who won numerous gold medals in Athens, just to name a few. Sporting victories are etched into the minds of our citizens and perhaps have a greater influence on the well-being of our society, more than political, economic or business activities in recent times.

The Irish Sports Council was established as a statutory body in 1999. Over the past 12 years, the council has made a huge difference in raising standards in Irish sports. National governing bodies, NGBs, are now more streamlined, professional and effective and they remain at the heart of delivering and developing Irish sport. Our sports people now enjoy the financial support from the taxpayer and the support of the council, vis-á-vis the newly established Irish Institute of Sport. There are no excuses anymore when it comes to support, both in terms of finance and in services offered. The council's remit is not just about high performance athletes; it is also about increasing mass participation in sports for all, no matter one's ability. This is delivered through the NGBs, including the GAA, FAI and IRFU, Special Olympics Ireland, OCI, Paralympics Ireland, the 32 local sports partnerships on the ground, the National Trails Office, Women in Sport, Youth Sports, SIDOs, sports inclusion disability officers, and Team Ireland Golf Trust.

Sport makes a contribution to our society more than just on the playing field. The economy, tourism, employment and health of our nation are also significant beneficiaries. For every €100 invested by the State, the Exchequer receives €149 back, which equates to €922 million in taxes generated. The GPA recently estimated that the real value to the economy of Gaelic games is €193 million annually. More than 38,000 people are employed in sports-related activities. As well as generating good social values, there is an economic value to the 270,000 volunteers in sport, which is estimated at between €322 million and €582 million annually.

Irish households spent approximately €1.9 billion on sport and sport-related goods in 2008, equivalent to 2% of the overall value of consumer spending in the economy. Sports related spending contributes €1.8 billion to the economy value added, equivalent to 1.4% of the economy wide gross domestic product. In all, it is estimated that 1.7 million people actively participate in sports providing a significant benefit to the well-being of our nation and a savings for the State in its health budget.

From a tourism perspective sports events and sports people have made the greatest contribution towards promoting a positive image of Ireland internationally in a most cost effective and efficient manner. In the past week or two alone, Fáilte Ireland estimated that television coverage of the Solheim Cup in the majestic setting of Killeen Castle was viewed by over 400 million people worldwide, producing approximately €60 million in public relations value alone, and the boost to the local economy was to the tune of approximately €30 million. In addition, in the past week the European Surfing Championships in Bundoran attracted 20,000 visitors which contributed €3 million to the local economy.

While we can boast about having four major winners born and coached on this island, our reputation and successes alone will no doubt further benefit our internationally acclaimed golf courses which in 2009 attracted 143,000 visitors spending over €110,000. The Rugby World Cup quarter final takes place this weekend but I am disappointed to learn that at the coming week's Global Economic Forum in Dublin Castle, which will be attended by 300 business, tourism and agricultural interests, the business of sport and sports related tourism is not featured on the agenda.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Shame on the Government.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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The forum was designed to feed into the diaspora around the world to help grow and foster our economy. What better way to do that than through our sporting heroes. The statistics prove that sport is business, particularly in the area of tourism. Our sports people are in a powerful position. They are highly respected throughout the world. They generate good will. They open doors to a cross-section of business and political leaders. They can be more successful in creating partnerships, fostering relationships and breaking down barriers yet there appears to be no role for sport in helping to revitalise Ireland's economy.

Since the Irish Olympic Council was established in 1999 promises have been made to build proper sporting indoor facilities. Working committees were established to identify how we could best tap into the London Olympic Games which will take place only 297 days from today. There is no hard evidence to suggest that the original target set by the then Governments have been achieved. It is fair to say, however, that it was the Fine Gael Minister of State for sport, Bernard Allen, who had the vision and leadership under his watch in the mid-1990s to initiate this statutory body. The result to which I have alluded can be seen on and off the field. The proof is in the pudding. The work of the Irish Sports Council and the Department of sport in general is getting on with its business of producing the goods.

The important contribution of sports to the economy has not been fully acknowledged or taken advantage of to date. It is essential that we understand fully the potential benefits of investment in sport in Ireland. Now that sport comes under the watch of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, I call on him to emphasise at Cabinet level how vital sport is to the people of Ireland, the economic and health benefits to Ireland and the valuable assets in our sporting ambassadors who will continue, as our Taoiseach said, to bring pride to the best little country in the world.

The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is the Minister with responsibility for sport. I know he has the passion and desire to lead the way. Sentiment towards sport is not good enough. Sport is real business. It is not just recreation and it is not just fun. Results are what we are looking for from the Government. When it comes to sports achievement, focus, determination and a positive attitude, Ireland is worth its weight in gold.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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The Senator is in injury time now.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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Winning is not everything. Winning is the only thing. It is okay to have the will to win but it is more important to have the will to be prepared.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State and his enthusiasm. How can one stand up in this Chamber and follow a speech by someone like Eamonn Coghlan?

Sport gives us our great moments. It reunites the generations, the regions and the social classes. The generational aspect is important. There might be a generation gap between people but someone who scored a goal against England in 1950 is a hero, even though he might be generations away from the present generation. I recall how unifying were the famous games in Croke Park against England when people from North and South came together. Arranging those games was a credit to all concerned, in particular Seán Kelly of the European Parliament and also the president of the GAA. I recall Declan Kidney's remarks as we left the stadium on one occasion. He said, "Beating England twice in Croke Park was the least we could do for the GAA". It captured that moment very well.

With the major expenditure review coming up I understand the reason the Minister was cautious in his contribution about decisions on capital. Capital spending was over €70 million. The Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Howlin, will be imposing tough restraints but we have a good stock of infrastructure now and we might contribute more on the human capital part by way of coaching and so on. We have many stadiums. We were lucky we did not end up with four in Dublin, another one for soccer and the Campus Stadium Ireland as well. The Minister of State might determine if there is anything in NAMA in regard to golf courses and swimming pools in hotels, which might be of interest to us.

On the elite athletes about whom Senator Eamonn Coghlan spoke, people from the arts attended the House recently, organised by Senator Mac Conghail. Would it be a consideration that the elite athletes might take a few days a month to visit schools? I am sure they would inspire students and it would be the quid pro quo for the grants they get from the Irish Sports Council. That would have a terrific impact on people throughout the country.

As other speakers have done I want to praise all the coaches and the volunteers. In many ways the spirit of sport is captured in an April or May evening when some small club in the country unveils a new dressing room and somebody important from the GAA attends, along with two county teams which would never have been in that village previously. The atmosphere on such occasions is terrific and it generates a great deal of local pride. Long may that continue.

There was one case during the year in which I thought I would be asking the Minister of State to intervene. When Ireland defeated England in the Cricket World Cup there was a move to exclude us from the next world cup but the men with cricket bats have made the appropriate gestures, and I hope Ireland does qualify. That was a great victory but the Government, with its incredible diplomatic contacts worldwide, may sometimes have to stand up when an Irish team appears to be unfairly treated. I thought that was the case but it has been remedied.

Like other speakers I am disappointed that the show jumpers did not qualify because I hoped they would. The Irish Sports Council may have to have discussions about the reason they did not qualify.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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We fancy ourselves as being very good at the horse sector but is it badly organised? Are we getting value for the taxpayers' money which the Minister is in charge of assessing how well it is spent.

This is a good picture, however, and I will not detain the House. It is great to be here with Senator Eamonn Coghlan and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. This is an Irish success story and the more people who become involved in sports in schools and universities the better. I am delighted that the students in universities, the treasurers and so on, organise clubs as well as well as playing on the field. That is grooming for all sorts of tasks they will discharge later in life. I am reminded of the old Victorian slogan, Mens sana in corpore sana; a healthy mind in a healthy body. That is the reason sports facilities were built around all the campuses, and it has been justified. Ireland is very good at sport. May it enjoy future success and may the Minister and Senator Eamonn Coghlan guide it on its way.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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I wish to share some time with our newly appointed European sports ambassador, Senator Harte, who I understand is on his way to the Chamber.

Senator Brennan mentioned his disappointment at not being selected for the Oireachtas team. There is training tomorrow at 1 p.m. in Trinity College and he is more than welcome to attend.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He can see from Senators' contributions on all sides how unifying sport is. I listened with interest to the Minister of State's statement and, as always, he spoke with passion. When it comes to allocating spoils, he will make sure his voice is heard at Cabinet and we will not be left short as a result.

There can be no doubt that for a state of 4.5 million people, we are tremendous sportsmen. Look at the turn-out in Australia for our rugby team. There was a scramble for tickets for the game against Russia so we can only imagine what the Australia game was like. I would love to be there but, unfortunately, I am not. Hopefully we will see the team in the final.

As the Minister of State pointed out, sport has the capacity to lift the nation. That even trickles down to county and parish level. Last week, my mother's parish, Effin - that is right, my mother is an Effin woman - went from junior to senior and the feeling of invincibility it gave to the parish can never be underestimated.

I am from Limerick myself, a city that is sports mad. We have so many different sports that often on the GAA field we find it hard to compete but I want to congratulate Na Piarsaigh, the only senior hurling club in the city who had a historic win in the county final on Sunday. I am sure they are still hanging from the rafters in the clubhouse in Caherdavin and fair play to them.

I took part in the Great Limerick Run not long ago. It showed off what is good about Limerick. The city often gets a bad press but once Limerick people take to the field, they put a different slant on it. This run started in O'Connell Street, a part of the city we all remember from those great Heineken Cup victories. I suggest that when the big screen in Cardiff showed the scenes in O'Connell Street, it certainly spurred the players on. The race continued past the rowing club and the Shannon, out past Thomond Park, in past the Gaelic grounds and out again past the outstanding sports campus at the University of Limerick.

I have seen clearly what investment in sport means for a city. We all know there are challenges for young people when it comes to sport, with competition from computer games and a fall-off in volunteering. I saw at first-hand, however, when I travelled through Dublin during the Seanad elections the GAA pitches that were full to capacity, with three and four games going on at one time. It did not matter what part of the city I was in, north, south, east or west. It made me shiver when I saw how much work we have to do where I am from, but we are on the right track now.

Unemployment and emigration among the young has an effect. A rural GAA club, Tournafulla GAC, has seen half of its sportsmen leave for London, where they play for another club. Is there anything we could do in conjunction with the Department of Social Protection to ensure that the JobBridge programme could be extended to local clubs and parishes? Not every organisation can do what the Labour Party in Limerick has done, where it co-opted a county hurler on to the county council to replace me. I wish Dave Moloney well in his work as a councillor. He will do us proud.

How do we keep people in the country? We would be better off if we gave them a few euro extra to help out and use their expertise to benefit the local GAA team. That would create interest in the parish and create a sense of community, as well as showing a good example to younger people.

Many Senators mentioned the Olympics Games and how Ireland could benefit from them. What security arrangements are being put in place in Ireland to combat any potential terrorist threat? Does that fall under the remit of the Minister of State? The last thing we want is for the common travel area to be abused by undesirables.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am delighted someone with his background and passion is in charge of sport because it is a huge issue in Ireland; it is part of our culture and every boy or girl wants to grow up to be a good footballer or a film star. Sport is like show business, the player is competing at the top level.

Those who want to jog five miles or play five-a-side football, however, are the people who keep sport going, along with the volunteers. Without children kicking a ball around or joining a swimming club in the community, sport would die. Investment in sport cannot be underestimated from both the health point of view and its importance to the community. The GAA has built up communities in areas that would otherwise die. In my own area Glenswilly GAA won its first county championship on Sunday after 29 years. I attended the first meeting of the club when it formed. It was a rural club and anyone driving through would only see a few houses but the team managed to win the county championship with players like Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher who define the community they come from.

We have a big weekend ahead of us. I am going to Barcelona without a ticket to the Andorra game but I will be in the company of 3,000 to 4,000 others who will be in Barcelona for the weekend and then back on Tuesday for the Armenia game. Hopefully we can qualify directly for the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland. In the meantime, the Irish rugby team play at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. There will be many brave souls going to bed after watching it or getting up to watch it. I am looking forward to a weekend of great sport and I hope it will be a successful weekend for Irish sport. As the Minister of State said, it lifts the country and individuals and gets people talking, not about how badly things are going but how great the country is and how the future in sport can benefit communities and the economy.

The European Court of Justice has ruled on the challenge by a pub landlady to the monopoly operated by Sky Sports. It is like a Bosman ruling for fans. Fans can now purchase their subscriptions in any country throughout Europe. This is a massive leap forward. The amount of money Sky Sports charge ordinary sports fans to watch a football match has turned sport into too much of a commercial entity. Gone are the days when Nottingham Forest, with Brian Clough as manager, picked up players around England and won the European Cup twice. Manchester United can now spend a billion, and much of that is Sky Sports money. However, the clubs at the bottom, such as Darlington and Portsmouth which are going out of business, have fed the leading clubs over many years. Those clubs are suffering. In the British Premiership, football has come to a level where a guy being paid £250,000 a week does not want to get off the bench. Taking Sky Sports out of the equation will help sport, although one begrudges players a good wage.

I welcome today's ruling in Europe. It brings Sky Sports back into the sitting room, and maybe the bedroom also. Many people will now be able to watch Sky Sports without having to look into their wallet every week. I am sure the Minister of State welcomes the ruling, as all sports fans do.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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It is easy to see the Senators are sportspeople. They are all running into injury time. Senator Cummins, was time allotted for questions this morning?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I think one minute is sufficient time for anyone to ask a question. That is what we have set down. The Minister of State will take two questions at a time.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Acting Chairwoman, in what order do you intend taking questions?

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I will start with Senator White and go back to the Government side.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I was preparing to speak on the debate.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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Only spokespersons may speak.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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That was agreed on the Order of Business.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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Senator Ó Domhnaill, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson, has spoken. You may ask a question, Senator White, if you wish.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I was delighted to hear Senator Eamonn Coghlan speak. He is one of our most elite athletes and I remember every battle he was in. I was working in the National Building Agency at the time with the Senator's cousin, Pamela Conroy.

Two weeks ago, at the annual conference of the Faculty of Sports and Exercise Medicine of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Professor Dónal O'Shea of UCD spoke about the role of sport and exercise in dealing with the obesity epidemic in Ireland. A Canadian sports physician at the same conference, Professor Karim Khan, told his listeners that exercise is medicine. I ask our doctors, as well as prescribing drugs and medication for blood pressure, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and cancers, to give a similar prescription for fitness. It has been proven that physical fitness is critical for keeping those diseases at bay. I ask the Minister of State for support in this regard. A general practitioner should not simply tell a patient to keep fit. An actual fitness prescription should be given. Doctors should push the mantra that exercise is medicine. Exercise is a magic drug, and it is free.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am a sports fanatic, like himself. I was glad to be Mayor of Waterford when John Treacy, a Waterford man, was given the freedom of the city. I gave Senator Coghlan a photograph of myself with Carlos Lopes, John Treacy and Charlie Spedding, who were gold, silver and bronze medal winners in the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Senator Coghlan and Steve Cram. I was lucky to be in the photograph and it is a wonderful photograph to have. I have been involved in soccer all my life. I have been president of the schoolboys and youth committees of the FAI.

Once again today, our boxers are doing the country proud in Baku. Several of them have already qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Minister of State recently made special grants available, through the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, IABA, for boxing clubs to improve their facilities. How is that scheme progressing?

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I will deal with the two questions and then respond to the debate.

With regard to Senator White's question, I would not interfere with how doctors do their business. However, sport is very important. I have been saying this since I was appointed Minister of State. If more people took part in sport, we would not need as many consultants, doctors or hospitals. We should encourage people. It is difficult to legislate for people to take part in sport but it is easier to educate them. Schools have an important role in this regard. We must talk to children about this at an early age.

I recently asked my officials to progress the targeting of funding for local authority sports facilities, and I compliment them on the speed with which they dealt with the matter. That money is now available. I want the work to start now and the facilities to be completed by the end of the year. I asked my officials to ask county managers and local authorities to target areas where there may be no facilities, such as a soccer, rugby or athletics club, and to bring sports facilities and multi-purpose parks to housing estates. We must give children an opportunity and encourage them to take part in sport at an early age. The local authorities responded to this initiative and I compliment them on that.

Senator Cummins is correct when he says boxing has done the country proud. I made €1.25 million available for boxing facilities because I felt that boxing clubs had not got their fair share of the national cake, in the form of the sports capital programme, over the years. More and more women are taking part in boxing but they do not have adequate facilities. We have asked the IABA to administer the scheme. The association will hire professional people and assess the progress of the scheme on behalf of the Department. We have handed the scheme over to the IABA and we are waiting for it to respond to us. We want to target boxing for women and to make facilities available to women.

Katie Taylor has been mentioned. She has done the country proud. I ask the media to lay off Katie Taylor in the run-up to the Olympic Games and to leave her alone and let her train. I call on the media not to put unnecessary pressure on her before the Olympic Games. She will deal with media attention after the games, if things go well. At present, she should be left alone to concentrate on her training.

I have explained why we targeted boxing. I hope the IABA will report back to me shortly. I want this work to be completed by the end of the year in some areas. If it is not, we will have to look at the matter. Boxing has done us proud and that is why we have targeted this funding.

I will take further questions from Senators.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his earlier intervention and for his replies. I think Senators would echo what he has said. I also thank him for his recognition of the European Year of the Volunteer, which is very important. My colleagues have shared their sporting achievements. My best sporting achievement is to be standing here beside Senator Coghlan. Standing in his glow is the closest I have ever been to big sporting success.

I have two questions for the Minister of State. Success in Irish sports has proven to be of major benefit to the Irish economy, the well-being of our nation and increasing participation at local and high performance levels. With ten months remaining to the London Olympic Games how hopeful are we of retaining funding for sports in Ireland? The Olympic Torch will be coming to Ireland. Are there any plans in place to involve the public and volunteers on in its journey from Belfast to Dublin?

The local sports partnerships-Irish Sports Council-An Post cycling series appears to have been highly successful. Would the Minister of State agree it has had a serious impact in terms of participation and economic benefit to local communities?

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I have one question which the Minister of State might put to the national broadcaster. I have taken part in the Dublin marathon on seven occasions and in the London marathon on five occasions. People who watch the London marathon in April will know that in terms of BBC coverage it is almost like a national day of volunteerism. This assists people in terms of their sponsorship for the following year and inspires others to take part in the next or any marathon. However, while the Dublin marathon passes Donnybrook, the only coverage of it by RTE is a 20 second clip of the winner and second place participant. We are trying to encourage participation in sports. Jogging is the cheapest, most efficient and handiest of any sport. Anyone with a pair of runners, a couple of pairs of shorts and a T-shirt can jog.

I am not aware of how much RTE spends on coverage of Formula 1 and snooker. There has been much talk about obesity and involving children in sports. As Senator Brennan said it is important we encourage not alone children but adults to participate in sport. I know of a man from Letterkenny who at almost 70 years of age will be taking part in this year's Dublin marathon and will complete it in under four hours. Millions of pounds sterling are collected every year for charity as a result of the London marathon. Anyone watching coverage of that marathon would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it. RTE has an obligation to promote healthy living in Ireland. Will the Minister of State explain why it does not provide coverage of the Dublin marathon when it provides coverage of other sports throughout the world? RTE's attitude appears to be coverage of any other sport but the Dublin marathon, despite that it passes by its door on the day.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Does Senator Harte have a question for the Minister of State?

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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Perhaps the Minister of State will raise that issue with RTE.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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Could high performance athletes be encouraged to do school visits as a quid pro quo for their awards?

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The final arrangements in respect of the Olympic Torch have not yet been signed off on. Members will be aware that Mr. Pat Hickey is Ireland's Olympics representative. While media reports indicate what is to happen, we have not yet been officially told what will happen. However, it is hoped people will have an opportunity to participate in whatever happens. We have no hand, act or part in that regard. We have not yet been officially notified of what will happen. Meetings are currently taking place and I am sure we will hear shortly what will happen.

On the sports partnerships race and so on, the sports partnership in my county recently organised a women's marathon, in which 5,500 women took part. Since taking up my position as Minister of State with responsibility for sport I have had three priorities, the first of which is to see more people taking part in sport. Winning is not important. I do not want them all to play for Mayo or Ireland or to win a gold medal in the Olympics but I want them to take part. The cream will rise to the top if we help people.

In regard to funding for high performance athletes, I am delighted to say there will be no change in respect of funding in this regard. It is important our sports people, regardless of what sport in which they are involved, get the best training and preparation to ensure they can represent our country to their best of their ability. We do not want a repeat of what happened in previous times, namely, athletes like Senator Coghlan going abroad to be trained. While that was fine at the time we now have in place great facilities to assist our athletes. I acknowledge Senator Coghlan has been part of that. It is the reason our boxers are so successful. It is hoped we can retain funding in this area.

I am a defender of RTE. I believe that for a small station it does well in terms of what it covers. It is good at providing coverage of soccer, Gaelic and rugby. However, the Senator is correct in that it should perhaps be considering coverage of other sports. Local radio stations lost that segment because they did not do what BBC did. RTE needs to start covering events in this country. I will give some examples of what is happening in my own county. Thousands of people from all over the world come each year to Geesala, which I know the Cathaoirleach has visited on many occasions, for its sports, horse racing and dog racing events. I compliment TG Ceathair which covered an event there this year. Also, I saw coverage of it on Sky Sports this year. Many people also visit Connemara for the pony fair and so on. Senator Harte is correct that RTE should be covering such events. There is no reason it could not provide a slot each evening in the summer months for coverage of national sports events. I will raise the issue with the head of sport at RTE when I meet with him. While RTE may have failed in respect of coverage of the marathon it is good at providing coverage of rugby, soccer and other events.

People often complain about RTE and the amount they pay for their television licence. However, they do not often consider how much they are paying to have Sky in their home. People are critical of RTE despite the fact that Sky Sports costs three times more than it charges.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am sure the Leader will agree that while this is an innovative system we are operating, it is a little unfair that spokespersons having already got sufficient time to make a contribution in which I suggest they had the opportunity to ask questions of the Minister of State should now have a second bite at the cherry, thus preventing the remainder of us an opportunity to ask questions. I ask that the Leader take a look at that.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is unfortunate that the Government decided to downgrade the Department of Tourism to that of junior ministerial status. However, the choice of Minister of State for tourism in that new configuration could not have been better. If ever there was someone who would fight at the Cabinet table or with his line Ministers for what is needed it is the Minister of State, Deputy Ring who has shown himself to be a gutsy fighter representing the people of Mayo. In that context, can the Minister of State indicate how successful he has been thus far in increasing the swimming pool grant from €6.6 million?

The Minister of State will be aware of one specific application in Drumshanbo in County Leitrim, which he recently had the pleasure to visit. I was delighted to meet him on that occasion with colleagues form all parties and none. The Acres Lake amenity scheme is an innovative scheme pioneered in the early 1970s. It sits on the shores of Acres Lake, which is a throughput for the Lough Allen canal which links into the Shannon. My late father, who was instrumental in headlining this, to the day he died paid tribute to the Taoiseach's late father Henry Kenny, the then Minister responsible for the Office of Public Works. He was the first Minister to acknowledge the importance of the waterways in Ireland and at that time gave a grant to Leitrim County Council which ultimately led to the reopening of the canal for navigation purposes.

This is not just about small town Ireland. The Lough Allen canal has proven to be a great boom in terms of increasing waterway access, tourism numbers and its contribution to the local economy. The application by Leitrim County Council is more than just another application coming across the Minister of State's desk. I would be grateful for whatever assistance he can provide in that regard.

Is there any possibility of a review of the original Act which set up the national lottery? As most people know it was originally set up to provide funding for agreed categories of which sports was one and health and education others. Unfortunately successive Governments, most of them Fianna Fáil Governments, I admit, changed the rules and the game to the point where much of the money goes directly to the Exchequer. Consequently, we are now in a difficult situation here. This is not about Exchequer funding. It is about money that people take out of their pockets and pay for lottery tickets. The money is ring-fenced.

Cathaoirleach:

Have you a question Senator?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It is nothing to do with the Government's budgetary or fiscal policy. Perhaps during his tenure the Minister of State will dust off the original Act and examine it to see whether we might be able to return to it. This could release more money for sport without putting any further imposition on the Exchequer.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I pay tribute to the comments of the Minister of State in the House this evening. He is doing a fine job. Recently, I was at a conference on disability in Galway. The importance and equality that sports creates for people with disability is well-recognised. The FAI has led the charge with Football for All programme.

In his short period as Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring has introduced several initiatives that have helped, in particular the swimming pool initiative announced some months ago. Every young person and child in the country has the right to learn how to swim. There are many facilities throughout the country run primarily by volunteers who are engaging in that. Has the Minister of State any plans to extend the swimming pools programme? It has already been a remarkable success in upgrading facilities run and operated primarily by volunteers, people who give up their time to engage in doing what is right to ensure the population is as healthy and as safe as possible.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I compliment the Minister of State not only on his contribution and answering of questions today, but on his performance to date in the Department. I wish him further success there. This is a worthwhile debate and I congratulate all speakers and spokespeople. I am delighted that we have such a high performer in our midst as my namesake. He made a most worthwhile contribution to this debate. My question is brief. Will the Minister of State indicate when the sports capital programme is opening?

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I put it to Senator Mooney that we have a senior Minister at Cabinet and I disagree with him that the post has been downgraded. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and I share the responsibility for tourism while I have full responsibility for sport. I believe I will be an asset to him in the areas of sport and tourism. Senator Mooney need not worry; I will look after the interests of tourism.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I knew the Minister of State would come out fighting.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Senators Mooney and Conway commented on swimming pools. We will have a second round shortly, depending on funding. We will do our best to spread the money as best we can and try to target it to the areas of most need. There are many applications and we must make decisions. I will make the decisions on the matter and I hope we make the right decisions. There will be a second round.

Funding from the national lottery is a matter for the Government as is any review the relevant Act. As the Minister of State with responsibility for sport I agree with the Senator about the impression one gets from discussing this with people. Everyone I meet in the country asks me where national lottery money is going on sport. I must be honest and open. The Senator is correct: previous Governments grabbed that money and put it into central Government funds. The Minister for Finance distributes this to every Department and that is wrong. People genuinely believe lottery funding goes to the Department with responsibility for sport. I wish this would happen and I would support the Senator in any efforts he and the Seanad make to support me in respect of getting it. If I got that funding it would be spent wisely.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I have no doubt. I am grateful to the Minister of State.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Senator Coghlan commented on the sports capital programme. It has worked well. I am in discussions with the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. It is important to open the programme again and I will explain why. National organisations such as those involved in GAA, soccer and rugby have done well and have been important for the country when it comes to building stadia. They are good, they are being used and this is good for the country. Many sporting organisations and groups need funding to keep up and enhance their facilities. I am working hard on this issue and putting a good deal of pressure on the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. I call on this House to assist me in any way it can to keep up the pressure when any Minister attends. Any money spent on sport is well spent and there is a return in two ways, an economic return and a health return. I hope we will have news on the matter before the end of the year.

Cathaoirleach:

There are two further questions from Senators Mulcahy and Mullins.

Photo of Tony MulcahyTony Mulcahy (Fine Gael)
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Like my colleagues, I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank him for his comprehensive presentation. I am somewhat at odds with Senator Mooney. I have no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will hold the senior ministry and that he will have the drive, spirit and enthusiasm to carry it to the end. We will see who is the Minister of State after a four or five year period. In the meantime I have no doubt the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will punch well above his weight. Can the Minister of State indicate what percentage of national lottery funding goes to sport? Is there a percentage and how is it divided up? It is a question similar to that asked by Senator Mooney. We will do anything we can to help.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I will keep my question short as well. I join in the words of welcome for the Minister of State. It is great to have a Minister of State in the Department who is so enthusiastic and up for every challenge. There is no better man. There are some great facilities throughout the country in most reasonably-sized towns. One concern is how to maximise the use of these facilities and get young people to use them. There is probably a small percentage of our population using them.

We must pay tribute to all the volunteers who help out in organisations and sports. We should honour and encourage these people at every opportunity. It has been a difficult time because of things that have taken place and the issue of child protection and so on. Many good people have been scared away from getting involved and helping out and this is a pity. Perhaps we should campaign to encourage more people to volunteer and get involved, especially in the sporting area.

As the Minister of State noted, every euro spent on sport is a real investment. The Minister of State's figured that for every €100 we spend, we get back €149 to the Exchequer, which is excellent. We have a wonderful product and outstanding role models who represent the country at the highest level. We have a great deal to be proud of. Nevertheless, I am concerned that we are not getting enough young people involved. I am keen to seen investment in future in more non-participatory activities such as walking trails, hiking and so on. I call on the Minister of State to keep an eye on such activity in future.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Senator Mulcahy asked about the breakdown of lottery funding. There is no breakdown. The money goes into central Government and the Minister for Finance distributes it like every other revenue taken in. There is no allocation from the national lottery. It goes into every Department and everyone gets a share of it.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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There was something in the original legislation; there used to be an allocation.

6:00 am

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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That is right but that does not happen anymore. That allocation was to go to sports and the arts but that is no longer the situation.

I refer to Senator Mullins's point. There is only one way to get people involved in sport and I am a believer in it. Schools have a major part to play. Sometimes we are critical of the education system and teachers but if teachers and schools are not involved then young children will not be involved in sport.

Senator Coghlan and others remarked that I was a soccer fanatic. This is true but I am also a sports fanatic. I love rugby and Gaelic football. Senator Burke is aware that I played against the Taoiseach in a final one time. He has had a mark since and I have a few marks too. I have the pleasure of holding an All Ireland Vocational Schools medal since 1971 and as long as I live I will remember having that medal and I will remember the team we played against: Antrim. A man called Gerry Armstrong played on the team for Antrim.

He went on to play for Spurs after he scored the famous goal for Northern Ireland that put Spain out of the World Cup.

If women are involved in sport, they will bring their children. It is important that we do everything we can in this respect. If there is another round of the sports capital programme, facilities must be used and shared. I am discussing this matter with my officials. The days of taxpayers funding facilities for elite groups are over. If they want grant aid, they will need to open their facilities to everyone. This will be part of my plan if there is another round.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Before the Minister of State concludes, I will take this opportunity to congratulate him on becoming the Minister of State with responsibility for sport and to wish him well in his portfolio.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach. I will try to respond briefly to some of the issues raised. The main one was that of the sports capital programme. We are seeking a new one. I wish Senator Ó Domhnaill was present, as he referred to the recent announcement concerning a swimming pool in his area. There was a lot of talk from the previous Government, but its cheque bounced. We have honoured that cheque. I was pleased to be able to make the announcement. The situation had been ongoing for 20 years. The swimming pool was discussed at every election, but nothing was done. The project has been approved and I hope it will be completed in the coming years.

The Senator raised a number of good issues regarding the swimming pools programme. We are examining the matter. Although the Government has provided €3.8 million, the local authorities are having difficulty matching the funds. We need to consider targets for the next round's spending. The national sports facility strategy, which we will announce shortly, will form part of this consideration. I look forward to receiving the report in a few weeks. It is being worked on by my officials.

The situation is not easy, as many changes have occurred during the past year in particular. We must find different ways to do things. We will have fewer resources and there is no point in pretending otherwise. As the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, my job is to try to hold on to as much as possible of our current budget. Money will need to be targeted, as it will not be as plentiful as it has been for the past ten years.

As for using national lottery funds for sport, revisiting the Act would be important. Even if I was not a Minister of State, I would be a firm believer in the concept that investment in sport would be money well spent.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State will have a job convincing the Minister for Finance.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Yes. I thank Senator Brennan for raising a number of issues. We are disappointed that the equestrian team did not qualify for the Olympics, but much of what is occurring in horse jumping in Ireland is good. The team did well in previous show jumping championships, coming third or fourth. It did not happen for the team on the day. I attended a recent event honouring under 16 years olds who had won European gold medals. We have a bright future. To be fair to the Irish Horse Board, the many difficulties stemming from the last two Olympic Games have been cleared up.

The Senator also referred to the Queen's visit. He was right about thoroughbred racing. Ireland has a great horse breeding and horse racing industry.

People love their sport. Senator O'Neill has left the Chamber, but he asked what could be done to get jobs for people so that our finest players would not go abroad. The main issue in this regard is the economy. We must get it up and running. If we can create employment, people will not need to go abroad. Although they did not leave during the past decade, we are back in recessionary times and people are leaving the country. It is dreadful to see this when they are our brightest county players. None of us wants to see our sons and daughters emigrate. We want them to live and work in Ireland. The only way to ensure this is by getting the economy up and running and doing right by it and the country. We must try to keep people here. If jobs are available, skilled and trained people will stay.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan discussed high performance sports. He was correct, in that it is important that I retain funding for these sports people. We must train them to be the best and give them every opportunity. I have a difficult job and I will need to fight for every single cent. As the Senator knows, tourism and sport are easy touches, but taking money from them would be a wrong decision by the Government. It is important that we hold what we have. We must undertake a total review and target our money.

The Senator was correct about the Irish Sports Council. It does a good job and the former Minister of State, Mr. Bernard Allen, made the wise decision to establish it. However, there is no harm in reviewing it and its operations to ensure it is implementing Government policy. The Department provides its funding, so it must be accountable to us. That it is being reviewed is good.

Sports will not be mentioned directly at this weekend's economic forum, but tourism will be. They are inter-related. The winner in the Government's reconfiguration of Departments was the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Transport brings people into and around the country, tourism attracts people and prompts those already living here to move around and support one another, and sporting events attract people.

It is correct to state that our major events have been successful. The recent Solheim Cup and other events have generated publicity. For a small country, we run events well and make gains. I hope to be able to retain Fáilte Ireland's funding for festivals and sporting events. Sport has not been specifically named on the weekend's agenda, but it will be discussed as an element of tourism. I will attend, as will the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan. I assure the House that we will not let sport go undiscussed.

I have answered the questions raised by Senators but I forgot to mention the best event I have attended so far this year. It was outside the country. Mr. Donagh Morgan, my Department's Secretary General, attended it with me. Sometimes, we are criticised in the media when we make political decisions to go abroad. The greatest event I have ever attended was the Special Olympics this year. That is what sport is about. The competitors gave their all. As long as I live, I will never forget my time there. A young child who was barely able to walk got up. Everyone in the stadium as praying that the child would not fall. When the crowd started clapping, the child kept going and going. We waited for the child to fall every minute, but it never happened. This is what sport is about - taking part and competing. It is not always about winning, although it is nice to win as well.

Senators:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Ag leathuair tar éis a deich maidin amárach.