Seanad debates

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

3:00 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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I move:


That Seanad Éireann--- recognises the critical role sport plays in our society and appreciates the significant health benefits to citizens of all ages who regularly participate in sport and physical activities;
- acknowledges the importance of attracting international sports events to Ireland such as American football, golfing tournaments and especially our bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup;
- salutes the thousands of volunteers who organise all types of sporting activity on a weekly basis and the many and varied sports clubs the length and breadth of the country that have provided many sporting opportunities for many years for participants of all age groups;
- commends the Government for continuing to support the extremely successful sports capital grants programme, despite the severe financial restraints of recent years; and
- encourages the Minister to support the programme into the future to enable sports organisations to continue to provide and upgrade services and facilities which ultimately will result in much greater participation in sport.
I wish to discuss some of the issues referenced in the motion, including the health benefits of participating in sport. An overwhelming amount of scientific evidence is available demonstrating the positive effects on our health. Regular participation in sport can help in the prevention of several serious diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, etc. In addition to its impact on people's physical welfare, recent evidence demonstrates that participation in sport can have therapeutic benefits and a positive impact on those suffering from depression.
There are significant benefits in hosting international sports events, with which I imagine the Minister of State is familiar. Above all, such events provide an opportunity for Irish sports fans to watch their sporting heroes compete against the world's best on their home pitch or soil. From a tourism perspective, such events not only draw visitors but they also act as an advertising opportunity for the country to showcase all it has to offer to the prospective and discerning tourist. The hosting of events such as the Giro d'Italiathis year and the Irish Open golf tournament has demonstrated Ireland's capacity to successfully host large international events, welcome participants and spectators alike and ensure they have a wonderful experience during their time in the country, an experience which will, I hope, leave them keen to visit Ireland again in the future.
One month ago I met eight American visitors in the hotel where I stay on a regular basis. I asked them whether it was their first visit to Ireland. Two of them had been here two years ago to see the University of Notre Dame play in the international football match. They had come back with six other friends. We should not underestimate the opportunities that can result when people happily spend a few days or a week here and then come back bringing six, eight or ten others with them.
In a previous debate I saluted the volunteers of Tidy Towns committees throughout the country and the contribution they had made to tourism. I now salute the great majority of the thousands of sports clubs in Ireland that are run entirely by volunteers. Sports clubs account for the vast majority of volunteering in Ireland. These volunteers allow the high level of sporting activity that takes place in Ireland to be sustained. This activity not only has positive health benefits mentioned for the participants but also numerous social benefits through the participation of all those who participate in sport more generally, whether as supporters, managers and parents, or, in many cases, as all three. Therefore, the work of volunteers who keep clubs going must be saluted. I do not believe we could put a revenue price on the hours they put in, winter and summer. Therefore, those involved are to be congratulated.
This year saw 2,036 applicants under the sports capital programme, the second highest number ever. This clearly shows the continuing demand and need for investment in sports facilities. I was delighted when the sports capital programme was reinstated in 2012. I commend the Minister of State for this reinstatement and acknowledge the major role he played in restoring grants after a gap of four years. Long may they continue to be paid. In 2011 the Minister of State was the main instigator and many thousands of sports clubs, including GAA, soccer, boxing, gun and badminton clubs, have improved their facilities as a result. The Government has since invested over €100 million under the sports capital programme, which funding has provided a major boost for clubs throughout the country from Malin Head to Mizen Head and from Carlingford, where I live, to Clifden. The islands have also benefited. I cannot underestimate or over-emphasise the importance of the grants to communities the length and breadth of the country. I know that the Minister of State recognises the major benefits the programme has brought to clubs throughout the country and encourage him to continue to support the programme. Every time I listen to him he speaks with gusto. He is passionate about sport and improving sports facilities throughout the land. I congratulate him in this regard and wish him continued success.

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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The Minister of State is welcome. It is only a couple of hours since we had the pleasure of breaking some bread and congratulating the wonderful young athletes and magnificent volunteers to which Deputy Terry Brennan alluded at the national athletic awards.

I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate. As the Minister of State is aware, my life has been dominated by sport which is still very much my life in terms of my contribution as a coach to the development of some of the young boys and girls who take part in athletics.

Ireland is a tiny little nation, but the majority of our sports people have done us proud throughout the world for many decades. Only the other day in the Seanad I made reference to the fifth gold medal won by young Katie Taylor at the world boxing championships in South Korea. I made reference to the fact that a statue of her should be put up in Bray. However, with reference to the cross which was knocked down on Carrauntoohil last week, perhaps the cross on Bray Head should be replaced with a statue of Katie Taylor to serve as inspiration for the youth of Ireland.

Our sports stars are world-renowned. They are known by their first name - Ronnie, BOD, Sonia, Rory and Pádraig. At home we talk about Henry, the Gooch, D. J., Oh Ah and Keano. Everyone seems to know about these wonderful sports stars and their great achievements. They are high achievers and have been from the time they were young. This is because of the tremendous amount of hard work they do and have done since their teens morning, noon and night and through the harsh depths and cold of winter.

It was always done with non-stop dedication. Any time they went through a bad patch they always sought the positive side of things. They had the vision and ambition to succeed at the highest level. They knew how to enjoy the thrill of victory and endure the agony of defeat and always came through on top of their game.

Sports tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the tourism industry, and I understand that at the recent European summit on sports, which took place in Ireland, there was a call for the establishment of a national bid unit here. The unit would be under the auspices of the Minister of State's Department and would give us the opportunity to attract major sporting events to Ireland, such as the Rugby World Cup in 2023. I am not just talking about bringing sports events to Ireland; this is about making Ireland a tourist attraction. I refer to everything from the amount of money that visitors spend here to the exposure this island gets around the world on television.

Sport is not just about winning at Croke Park, in the boxing ring or at a major international golf event. The importance of sport is in how it impacts on society, our health and our well-being. Sport develops social skills and confidence and increases the self-esteem of young men and women. Sport teaches us what hard work and ethics are all about; it teaches us how to win and how to lose. It is important to instil a good education in young sports people before and through their teenage years. They must learn of health, well-being and the importance of nutrition.

Points for Life is a pilot programme that I initiated in Wicklow schools based on a motion passed in the Seanad a number of years ago. Thanks to the support of the Minister of State in funding this initiative, the Department of Education and Skills implemented the programme and the evaluation was completed by the physical education, physical activity and youth sport research centre at the University of Limerick. Unfortunately, when the results of the evaluation were published they supported what we already know: the fundamental motor skills of young people in Ireland are in very poor condition. There was a marked improvement over the six months of the pilot programme but, unfortunately, the young boys and girls who participated are still below the 25th percentile, which is not good.

The national governing bodies are doing a phenomenal job on sports participation, and not just at elite level. As mentioned at today's lunch, the number of recreational athletes and joggers has been increasing, particularly in the age range from 25 to 35 years and older. This applies not only to my sport but to triathlons too, so perhaps it is only when people reach their 20s that they realise they have missed out on something.

I welcome the Sport Ireland Bill and the merger of the Irish Sports Council with the National Sports Campus Development Authority, as it will be great to bring Irish sports under one umbrella. The Minister of State mentioned volunteers, without whom this country would be in a sorry state. The Minister of State estimated the financial value of contributions made by volunteers to be around €1 billion.

Sports capital grants always seem to benefit the three big sports: the GAA, soccer and rugby. They get most of the funding down the line, not just grants to national governing bodies. I am biased on this issue. Athletics is a core subject in schools but, unfortunately, 15 counties out of 26 received no funding for athletics clubs. In Dublin some €8 million was distributed in sports capital grants, but only two athletics clubs received grants, each amounting to €40,000. Many small clubs and organisations make applications for sports capital grants but may not have the administrative capabilities of the big three organisations. I ask the Minister of State to consider giving such organisations a support mechanism. They apply for the grants every year and their volunteers need support. The Minister of State has applauded such volunteers for their contributions to the country.

3:10 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House again. Fianna Fáil supports this motion and recognises the critical role played by sport in society. With over 1.7 million Irish adults participating regularly in sport, the State has a central role in supporting sports activity across the country through infrastructure and policy supports. As a result of unprecedented levels of investment by Fianna Fáil-led Governments, Irish people have more opportunities to play and compete in a wider array of sports than ever before. With over €730 million allocated to more than 7,400 projects since 1998, the sports capital programme has significantly improved the quality and quantity of sports facilities in almost every village, town and city in the country. The facilities funded range from the smallest clubs to national sports centres, and Fianna Fáil believes that continued targeted investment in sport is vital to maximise the benefits that arise in the areas of health and well-being, social and cultural development, education, personal development, tourism and the economy.

I echo the comments of Senator Eamonn Coghlan in commending the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on the work he has done since the reintroduction of the sports capital programme by this Fine Gael-led Government. I cannot think of a better fit for the role of Minister of State with responsibility for sport than Deputy Ring. He has done significant work in the past two years. Because of where he is from - like me, he has lived in the snipe grass for some time - he knows the value of a shilling. The Minister of State understands the importance of sports capital grants to clubs across the country, irrespective of national organisations that also benefit. The big three organisations will always get the largest share - this is only proper, as they have the highest levels of participation - but I hope the Minister of State continues to try to square the circle and give money to the kinds of organisations outlined by Senator Eamonn Coghlan. Katie Taylor provides a fine example, and we are all proud of her achievements; she has put us on the world map in the sport of women's boxing. We should consider where Ms Taylor came from. I listened to a radio vox pop in Bray immediately after her victory in South Korea and many drew attention to where she trained. She now has proper gym facilities, and I commend the Minister of State on ensuring this is the case, but, as Senator Eamonn Coghlan noted, many athletes involved in minority sports are not far from changing clothes behind a shed. There are still problems with facilities and resources, and I know the Minister of State will fight hard, along with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, at the Cabinet table, to secure more money in these areas.

It is extraordinary the impact that sport has. I recently read that sport generates billions of euro across the world; this information may have emanated from the convention referred to by Senator Eamonn Coghlan. Sport permeates every aspect of life, and Ireland is a sports-mad nation. It is extraordinary that an island the size of Ireland, with a population of around 5.5 million people, has a rugby team ranked number three in the world. Ireland also has the GAA, the premier sporting organisation on the entire island, which connects urban and rural areas. The late Kevin Heffernan, Heffo, started the sequence of success for Dublin in the mid-1970s. Prior to that, Dubs, even those living around Croke Park, did not attend GAA matches, as they were regarded as culchie games. Dubs attended soccer matches in Tolka Park and went to see the Hoops, Shamrock Rovers, in Glenmalure Park.

An awful lot of them did not go to GAA matches. Now look at the transformation. Not only do they go-----

3:20 pm

Photo of Eamonn CoghlanEamonn Coghlan (Independent)
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I went there in a pram.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Coghlan is disagreeing with me. Maybe he went from the leafy suburbs, where he was born. I am talking about the real Dubs. Now look at them. They are proudly wearing the Dublin shirt, not just at the football matches which they attend in enormous numbers, but all over the place. There are so-called colours nights in Copper Face Jacks where one will see the Dublin shirt and all the other county shirts as well. Many college students in Dublin go to that particular venue. I do not want to give it too much free publicity, because the Dublin captain has already given it enough. My daughter used to go there and she wore the Leitrim colours with great pride. That venue hosts colours nights and all the young people there wear their county colours. That would never have happened years ago.

I remember Ireland's wonderful success in Italia 90, which captured the imagination of the entire country. I am sure the Minister of State would agree that it was another benchmark moment when Irish people embraced the Irish soccer team, which did wonderful things for the country. Even those who did not know or care much about soccer were impressed that Ireland was out there, within a whisper of getting to a World Cup semi-final in Italy. I remember that in the years subsequent to 1990 the number of Italians visiting Ireland increased significantly.

An interesting fact is that when Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973, productivity rose in the north east of England in the weeks and months following that success, such was its uniqueness. That has happened in Ireland too. Economic performance is not necessarily gauged by the number of international companies coming to Ireland. It is as much gauged by the success of Ireland abroad in various sporting activities. I have no doubt that the people of Bray and most of those in the boxing fraternity have an extra spring in their step since last Sunday, when Katie Taylor won the World Championship. When Ireland wins the Rugby World Cup next year, we will all have a spring in our step.

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I rise to support the motion before us. I would have preferred it had Senator Mooney not mentioned 1973, because I am a Leeds United supporter.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry about that.

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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We are both of that vintage, I am afraid.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I was referring to the economic aspect of the result rather than the winning team.

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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There is not enough appreciation of volunteering in sport. While that does not apply to the Minister of State, it certainly is the case for some parents, who use sport as a baby-sitting service for their children and then, when their Johnny does not get picked for the team, blame the volunteer who has done all the work. People should be less critical of the volunteers who are in every village and town in Ireland. While there are plenty of them, there still are not enough. As we all know, it is the same people who do all this work all the time. The amount of time they invest in motivating young children is just unreal. Thanks to these volunteers, we have a huge level of participation in sport, which gels together all nationalities. Sport has no boundaries and does not recognise religion, colour, creed or status. Indeed, we had a member of the Traveller community carrying our national flag at the Olympic Games. This is all brought about by volunteers.
Money spent on community centres, new pitches, swimming pools and so forth is money well spent. It is far better than spending money on courthouses. In that context, I must compliment the Minister of State on divvying out the sports capital grants in a very fair manner. He listened to all representations made to him. One might say he is the Santa Claus Minister of this Government, because there is nobody else delivering anything. I recall making representations to the Minister on behalf of the gymnastics club in Ballaghaderreen, which was awarded €7,000 or €8,000 under the sports capital programme. Were it not for that money, the club would have been shut down. In that sense, the Minister of State is keeping structures in place.
Participation in sport contributes greatly to healthy socialising, greater academic success and better character values. In my own town of Ballaghaderreen I managed an under-14 soccer team about four years ago. I played my small part and the team won the premiership that year. Members of the local Traveller community were on the team, as were members of the Pakistani community, as well as local lads. The Pakistani lad who played on the team, Sharoize Akram, is now playing minor football for Mayo, and will go on to greater things; of that there is no doubt. He is an absolutely unreal athlete and he will end up playing senior football with Mayo. Cian Hanley was also on that team. He is a brother of Pearce Hanley, who plays for the Brisbane Lions. Cian, who is just 18, has now gone out to Australia, having signed a contract with the Brisbane Lions too. Ballaghaderreen is also home to the Connaught cricket champions. All of this started from volunteerism.
We also have a 14-year-old badminton player in Ballaghaderreen called Adam McAllister, who won a European championship match recently. He was in the same class as my own son, whom the Minister of State met and who is a four-time world champion Irish dancer. In the same class is a young lad called Patrick Callaghan. Two years ago his father decided that Patrick was not getting enough exercise so he brought him out walking. He got bored with walking after a few days so his father decided to try the golf course. He borrowed some clubs and brought him out. Patrick took to golf in an instant and has won both national and international competitions already. It is reckoned that he will be the next Rory McIlroy.
We also have a very successful Gaelic football club and soccer club. I thank the Minister of State for awarding grants to both of those clubs, as well as to many other clubs in my area. All of those clubs are run by volunteers. There is huge participation in sport in my own town and many other towns. It is keeping children away from PlayStations. At this point I wish to make special mention of a man called Brian Tansey, who passed away a number of years ago. Brian was not just a volunteer; he was an extraordinary volunteer. He was involved with the GAA, gymnastics, the Community Games and so on. He coached children from the age of four. I remember bringing my then four- or five-year-old son to the GAA club for the first time. Brian was there, coaching with the club. I watched my young fella out on the field, like any proud dad, and hoped that he would get the ball and kick it over the bar, but he would not run or call for the ball. He just stood there. I asked myself "Is he going to do anything?". Brian Tansey then intercepted the ball in mid-air, went over to my son and handed it to him. That was his first kick of a ball. Now he is playing for the east Mayo minors and is hoping to compete for a place on the Mayo minor team. This was all brought about by volunteerism and good volunteers.
There are children out there who will say, every so often, "There is nothing for us to do," but for God's sake, there is plenty for them to do. The following is some advice from a judge who regularly dealt with young people, which was passed on by John Tapene, principal of Northland College in New Zealand:

Always we hear the cry from teenagers, "what can we do, where can we go?" My answer is this: Go home, mow the lawn, wash the windows, learn to cook, build a raft, get a job, visit the sick, study your lessons and after you've finished, read a book. Your town does not owe you recreational facilities and your parents do not owe you fun.
The world does not owe you a living, you owe the world something. You owe it your time, energy and talent so that no one will be at war, in sickness and lonely again. In other words grow up, stop being a cry baby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone not a wishbone. Start behaving like a responsible person. You are important and you are needed. It's too late to sit around and wait for somebody to do something someday. Someday is now and that somebody is you!
That is very good advice. I thank the Minister of State and urge him to keep up the good work. We hope that next year he will be acting like Santa Claus for the people of Roscommon again.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I recall on one occasion being in a taxi in Cyprus and trying to have a chat with the driver. I asked him if he knew much about Ireland and he said that all he knew about Ireland was the Irish soccer team and Tipperary mineral water. That shows, in a way, how much we depend on sport to promote ourselves as a people. For a small country, we have done exceptionally well. I look across the floor at Senator Eamon Coghlan.

We all felt part of his great successes and victories. We will never forget watching Ronnie Delaney crossing the finishing line in 1956. For people of a particular age, there will always be a memory of that race. I often think of Tommy Wade jumping against the clock on his little horse Dundrum to win the Aga Khan Trophy. I can still remember that when he came back to Tipperary thousands of people turned out to meet him. I remember the famous horse trainer Vincent O'Brien for whom there was a civic reception when I was chairman of Cashel Urban District Council. He was humble and modest, yet a world figure. I am only naming those close to me. There is also the hammer thrower and Olympic champion Dr. Pat O'Callaghan in whose company I had the privilege to be on many occasions. He was a modest man, yet he won a gold medal for Ireland against the world.

When we look back, we think about the unifying effect of sport. Those of us who have read stories about events in County Kerry, in particular the Civil War, remember that it was the GAA which brought both sides together. This is recorded in many books and shows the unifying effect of sport at the time.

Sport has many faces. Members have referred to the 1,200 sports clubs in the country. Divide that figure by 32 and we are talking about 30 to 40 clubs in every county. That gives an idea of the extent to which people are involved. They are underpinned by 500,000 volunteers. The figures are huge and we possibly take them for granted. When we have a debate such as this and look at the statistics, we realise 1.7 million people participate in sport every year. We are talking about the whole nation; it is as simple as that.

The importance of sport was brought home to me very strongly at the start of the recession. People were down, confused and wondering where their lives were going. However, it was all forgotten when an Irish team or a person's county team was playing. This feeling did not last for the duration of the match only but for days afterwards. It was like having an injection of life into a community. Given its broad infrastructure, sport seems to touch everybody in some way. That is its importance. It affects the young, the old, the poor and the rich. There are no politics; it has that influence for good.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan touched on the commitment of sports people. In order to reach their peak, huge discipline is required. Whether playing with a local club, on the world stage or in Croke Park, the commitment required cannot be overstated. The physical aspect is not the only important one. We live in an age in which we are worried about health issues and playing sport is possibly one of the best ways to have a healthy nation. We have to remind ourselves of this. There is another aspect to sport - it gives us role models for young people. We often hear parents say when young people are involved in sport that it keeps them off the streets and stops them from getting bored. It also gives them a sense of team spirit and develops character.

We need to speak about the purse. Nobody knows better than the Minister of State the excitement in an area when a sports grant is granted. It is so important, be it small or big and we are all aware of it. However, communities are not being given 100% grants, which incidentally would not be a good idea. They will have done their homework and be able to prove to the Minister of State and the Department the viability of the proposition made. However, the acknowledgement of the State makes a difference. It is adding that piece of the jigsaw to develop the project. People will buy a pitch, on which they will have to work in draining and sodding it. They will have to erect a stand and so forth. When I played with Cashel King Cormacs, we togged out on the side of the field in hail, rain or snow. That was important, too, and we have all done it, but it was a different period. We have to be proud of the progress we have made. Only for that progress we would not have had the achievements we have had. There was a great spirit in the old days. If I attended a Munster final in the 1960s or 1970s and Cork and Tipperary were playing, even at a young age, the adrenaline was flowing at such a rate that one wondered if it would be possible to withstand the excitement until the Sunday night. There was always a sense of sportsmanship. Even if we got excited, there was never an artificial triumphalism; the opponent was always respected. That must be part of the social asset. However, like every other country, the country is changing and has new challenges, obstacles and outlooks, but that spirit is still necessary.

I commend the Minister of State who I know has travelled the length and breadth of the country. I have heard his addresses at events and agree with Senator Terry Brennan that there is a passion and a spirit in him which has to be symbolic of the spirit of sport. We are lucky to have people like him. It is one thing to give a grant; it is another to have a Minister of State with a deep interest in what is happening. One hopes he will realise from this debate the admiration for his work and, above all else, the importance of helping sport, even when it is being threatened and challenged.

3:30 pm

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State who is always welcome. He is not here often enough. We will have to have him here more often to speak on sports subjects, in particular. Like music, sport transcends all barriers and is a unifying force. I compliment the Minister of State on the restoration of sports grants. I know the work that went into this decision and that the Minister of State had to fight his corner. His efforts are respected the length and breadth of the country and the money is well spent. Money spent on sport and sports clubs - irrespective of the sport involved - is money well spent.

I feel the passion in speaking about sport. We have the Louth jersey. We also have a Roscommon or Mayo one. I do not know which one Senator John Kelly wears. Tipperary is represented. We have the Dubs represented and a Member from Galway is sitting behind me.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Of course, we are going to hear about Dundalk and County Louth, but we will all be wearing our own colours.

Katie Taylor has been mentioned. She is probably one of the best sports people ever to come out of the country. I heard Michael Carruth speak on radio recently about the facilities for boxers. He mentioned, as did Senator Paschal Mooney, that prior to the games in South Korea, the facilities in Bray were spartan. They are now very good. He said the sport of boxing was doing well under the sports capital programme. However, he also said they would always fight their corner to get more. Fair play to him - that is what he should be doing.

I wish to speak about Waterford Institute of Technology. It has a major sports complex which hosts national, interprovincial and international events. We are only short €1.5 million to complete the project which will prove to be the catalyst in attracting many sports events to Waterford and the south east. There will also be a conference centre which will be able to cater for over 2,000 people. This is absolutely necessary as such a centre is not currently available in the south east. I hope the project will not fall between two stools, the Departments responsible for education and sport.

I also wish to refer to physical education, PE, in our schools. There is not enough emphasis on PE in primary schools in particular. There is some emphasis on it in secondary schools but there should be far more PE in primary schools. In that regard I note the project mentioned by Senator Eamonn Coghlan. From a health point of view it is very important that there is greater take-up of, and emphasis on, physical education.

I cannot pass up on the opportunity to compliment our volunteers in every area of sport. I lined pitches, put up nets and, more importantly, took nets down for many years, and people everywhere are doing that day in, day out. They are the unsung heroes of sporting clubs, be it soccer, athletics or any sport. We are blessed to have so many of them and to have that type of volunteerism through the length and breadth of the country.

I wish the Minister of State well and I hope there will be another tranche of sports capital grants in the near future to assist clubs. As Senator Kelly said, the €7,000 that the gymnastics club in Ballaghaderreen received was as important as the €60,000 or €70,000 received by any other club elsewhere in the country. Small grants are as important as the large ones. When people get something they get off their backsides and put the effort into building their communities. The grants given to sports are an investment in communities throughout the country. I commend the Minister in that regard.

3:40 pm

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, to this debate on the critical role sports play in our society. Having listened to my colleagues, it is clear we could continue this debate all night in view of the many different areas of sport in which we can be proud of our nation.

I commend the terrific achievement of Katie Taylor in her fifth world championship victory. She really is the pride of the nation in all she has achieved and, I am sure, is yet to achieve. The recent success of our rugby team against all the odds and against people's expectations was phenomenal. Fingers crossed, let us hope the Irish soccer team can continue on course. There has been a bit of a blip but hopefully the team can return from that and reach the European championships once again in 2016. Soccer is my passion, particularly Dundalk FC in my home town. When people talk about soccer everybody recalls the glorious days of 1990 and how it brought the nation together. People nearly went bankrupt trying to get to the World Cup in Italy. It shows how much sport unifies us as a nation and the pride we take in the success of our athletes, regardless of who the athlete is.

As a keen supporter of soccer, and particularly of my home team, and in my regular meeting with representatives of local sports clubs, I am acutely aware of the significant impact many clubs and organisations have had in local communities. Local clubs are integral to their communities and are often a focal point for many people. They provide a tremendous social outlet, aside from the sporting aspect. The sports capital programme has provided considerable funding to local clubs in my area, which in turn gets re­invested in the community and provides a boost which reverberates across many groups of varying ages. This year, 24 local sports clubs were awarded over €l million in sports capital funding in County Louth, for which we are extremely grateful. This funding went towards sports equipment, upgrades to club facilities and other necessary improvements.

Local sports clubs promote physical activity while also promoting inclusion and positively contributing to mental health. That is another aspect we should discuss. I recently met with representatives of Naomh Colmcille GAA club in Drogheda to discuss their mental health initiative, "How Are You Feeling Today?". This excellent initiative aims to provide activities in the local club to help maintain and develop the mental well-being and physical fitness of those who are isolated and in need in the community. Sports clubs provide a vital and important outlet for many people in their daily lives as evidenced by this local initiative, which is replicated throughout the country.

I have been proud to support Special Olympics Ireland during my term in the Seanad. The Minister has also been very supportive. He attended the very emotional opening of the national games in Limerick earlier this year. Special Olympics Ireland was delighted to have the Minister there. It has been my great honour to raise the work of Special Olympics in the Seanad over the last few years. This organisation is truly special. We could continue this debate all night. I arranged for a debate in the House on the work of Special Olympics Ireland previously. Over 3,000 volunteers travelled to the national games in Limerick last June. That is a testament to the athletes and the organisation. The thousands of hours each year that volunteers provide to run this organisation is incredible. Without volunteers events such as the very successful national games last summer would not be possible.

Events are organised throughout the year. The next one is the Special Olympics Polar Plunge which takes place every year at the Forty Foot. This will be the fourth one in which I will participate. Polar plunges are taking place in different outlets throughout the country and I encourage my colleagues to take the plunge and, as they say, get freezing for the reason of supporting Special Olympics Ireland. This evening I sent all Members an e-mail with the details. I would appreciate any support for the Special Olympics through their participation or by spreading the word about it.

I also had the great pleasure to work closely with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and Special Olympics Ireland earlier this year to see the new Special Olympics Ireland headquarters relocated at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown alongside the FAI, Irish Sport HQ, the Irish Institute of Sport and our finest sporting facilities. This announcement represents a mark of equality in Irish sport overall. I have repeatedly called on my colleagues in the Government to view Special Olympics and the area of disability as a whole, not just as a HSE or Department of Health area in the disability sector, but to have a cross-departmental focus. I was delighted that the Minister, Deputy Howlin, allocated €5 million for the new headquarters and that the many years of hard work by the Special Olympics organisation and those associated with it have been recognised.

I agree that we must continue to support our local sports clubs and organisations into the future and foster this invaluable resource in our communities. I am probably over time, but I will conclude by mentioning my local club, Dundalk FC, which won the league for the tenth time this season after a very barren period. We talk generally about the value of sport and how it includes people. I wish to recount a story about somebody who is very close to me and who lives for Dundalk FC and every match. He cannot read but can tell one exactly when Dundalk FC is playing, who is playing and what the team is. I do not know how he does it. This year, however, Dundalk FC also won the EA Sports Cup final and at the end of the match one of the players, who would not be much older than the chap I mentioned, ran down from the podium with his winners medal, the first medal he had ever won, and put it around my friend's neck. He said: "That is for you, buddy, because you are with us all the way." One can talk about sport, sportsmanship and winning, but I will never forget that. I am even getting goose pimples thinking about it now. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, that somebody would stop and think of the little people and their supporters. Win, lose or draw, that is the real meaning of sport.

3:50 pm

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As others have said, it is a Ministry for which he is very well suited and for which he has huge passion, energy and enthusiasm. He gets this portfolio and is doing a great job. Perhaps I am biased but I think we would all agree on that. The Government has shown a great commitment to investment in sport even under the severe financial constraints we were under during the past number of years. It is fair to say that the investment has seen a return, be it in the form of sports capital grants, as have been mentioned by many Senators, or efforts to attract international events and tournaments. It is fair to say that Fine Gael and the Labour Party in government have a great track record. As other Senators have mentioned, we seem to really punch above our weight in the area of sport, which is a very fitting pun considering Katie Taylor's success yesterday, not to mention golf, rugby and the GAA.

If we look to our work in attracting international events, we see an unparalleled track record of success to date with American football games becoming a regular fixture, the UEFA Europa League final, the upcoming games we will host during the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, the Volvo Ocean Race, golfing tournaments and our bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. I was delighted with the success of the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship bid in particular, which will see four matches being played in Ireland, and will see a benefit of somewhere between €50 million and €100 million coming to Dublin and, hopefully, the entire country. Small and savvy investments in these bidding processes have proven to be an absolutely worthwhile investment – coming at a small percentage of the €6 million in consultancy fees that were spent on the ill-fated "Bertie Bowl" some years ago.

We can have no doubt that sport is important to this Government. On the investment side, we have managed to continue the sports capital grant process regularly throughout this term with our third round of sports capital grants now coming up in a few months time. The Minister of State puts a significant amount of work into this.

With €31 million allocated in 2012 and €40 million allocated in 2014, we have seen a great investment in grassroots participation in sport up and down the country. I believe that this is something which is paying off huge dividends in terms of the development of a number of sports at grassroots level. As such, I am glad to see further sports capital funding coming down the tracks in 2015.

Some will try to raise the issue of so-called cronyism when it comes to these grants, as no doubt the Opposition will attempt to do, but then it must consider the case of Dublin North West. This is the only constituency in the country where Fine Gael had no parliamentary party member for the last two rounds of sports grants funding yet it received in excess of €2 million and had a number of successful bids. These sports capital grants are distributed on merit.

This motion also includes the important provision of saluting the volunteers. Senator Kelly and other Senators mentioned the work of those who organise sporting activities across the country in a huge variety of different sports, which can be thankless in so many organisations. I believe that this is only right and proper. If these people charged for what they do, the reality is that our sports capital grants would have to be possibly 20 times the size of what they are now. It is only thanks to the dedication, commitment and passion of individual volunteers that sports clubs in this country - whether they are in rowing, boxing, GAA or any number of other things – are kept going.

The next issue might be a bit off the beaten track but given that it is an issue I raise regularly, I believe it is important to raise it here. Sport and physical activity are potentially the most effective tools we have in the fight against childhood obesity. One in four Irish children are now overweight or obese according to research and this is a problem which is not going away anytime soon. We need to use the tools of policy creation at our disposal to encourage sport wherever possible and this is not helped when one sees the statistics. Last year the EU information network found that Irish primary schools offered less physical education hours than any other EU member state. On top of this, many schools have banned running in the yard at break time, which is further curtailing children's opportunity to exercise. While I understand individual school management authorities must have a safety statement in place in their schools, there are no general directives to ban running in the school yard yet it seems to be happening in an increasing number of schools. Indeed, according to the National Parents Council, many parents, while understanding safety and insurance concerns, feel that banning running in the school yard should be the last possible resort. I would be interested in hearing the Minister of State's views on that or whether it is on his radar. The idea of staggering break times should be considered as an alternative – with less congestion on playgrounds and, therefore, less likelihood of accidents. Indeed, it could even be an opportunity to have more "formalised" lunch time activities with more of an exercise element to them.

Ultimately, I am very happy to contribute on this topic and I am glad to see this motion tabled. I believe it is something that is worthy of our thoughts and that it is a field in which the Government has achieved greatly in so far. We have invested in sport, we have invested cleverly and now we need to use sport to ensure we meet the public health challenges in the future. Senator Kelly mentioned Mayo and certain people playing for Mayo. I am getting confused as to whether he is representing Mayo or Roscommon. He mentioned the Pakistani player who has now started to play for Mayo. Perhaps we need an influx of international players down in Mayo. Something of an extension of the gene pool might not do any harm because it might take us out of the bind in which we find ourselves where we do not reach the success we have sought for so many years down in Mayo. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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I did not expect to be called so promptly so my thoughts are a bit unplanned. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I certainly welcome the motion which is, obviously, fully supported by everybody. Any time the Minister of State comes before us to speak on sporting matters, I appreciate that he has a broad range of knowledge across the entire sporting sector. In particular, I know that one of his first loves is the game of soccer. In that regard, I feel obliged to use this particular motion to comment on the events arising from the YouTube video of the chief executive of the FAI. It is over 40 years since I watched as a very young man a game on television in Dalymount Park between Brazil and an all-Ireland soccer team which for political reasons was called the Shamrock Rovers XI. I was too young to be at the game but the Minister of State was probably there when the Brazilian soccer team, who were world champions in their prime, beat the all-island Irish team by four goals to three. It was a magnificent footballing, sporting and indeed political occasion. I think back as a Spurs fan to the Pat Jennings, Joe Kinnears, Pat Rices and Martin O'Neills. These were world-class footballers playing for an all-island team. We could all be very proud of that particular structure. About 12 months ago, the Taoiseach expressed his view that it would be beneficial for soccer, sport, reconciliation and politics on this island if we could once again have an all-island soccer team. I support this view and I presume the Minister of State would also support it. How strong such a group of players would be at the World Cup and the European Football Championships. That concept of Ireland playing together is one we must encourage.

This is why I am genuinely concerned, disappointed and upset at the song the chief executive of the FAI chose to sing. It is, of course, correct to say that it was an unguarded moment. It was a YouTube video. It was not a planned choral performance but every story tells a tale. I ask myself what sort of story was presented to the majority community in Northern Ireland.

What sort of presentation does it make to the people involved in soccer in Northern Ireland who, generally speaking - I am making a broad spectrum statement - come from a different divide and would have a different political background? I ask my colleagues what would be our reaction if senior executives of the IFA in Northern Ireland were singing loyalist songs or songs remembering or honouring the Shankill butchers or the soldiers who killed so many people in Derry on Bloody Sunday?

4:00 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It happened with the England fans at the Scotland game. They were singing anti-IRA songs.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Bradford, without interruption.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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Senator Mooney raises a valid point because, of course, that did happen and the English soccer manager apologised.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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John Delaney has apologised.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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I cannot speak for John Delaney. However, the Minister of State, as the person responsible for sport, through his Department invests very significant funding in Irish soccer, and long may that continue. He should make his strong displeasure known because I believe we need to have a message of reconciliation from all the sporting bodies on this island. Soccer, the greatest game in the world from a participation perspective and a hugely popular game on both sides of the Border, has a major role to play in the reconciliation of this island. We have the odd dispute about whether players will declare for the North or the South, but our aspiration should be, as with our rugby players, that they will declare for an all-island Ireland team. Let us not worry about flags, anthems or emblems - I am sure we can come up with another song, if necessary. However, we should aspire to having a Thirty-two County Irish soccer team which is all-island rather than all-Ireland.

I believe the activity during the week was not helpful in that regard. The Minister of State cannot account for John Delaney and he can account only for his own Department, his own views and the views of the Government. Nonetheless, on the record and in this House, the Minister of State should make his views known, as well as, hopefully, his concerns and his disappointment. I have never met John Delaney; I just know of him and I have read some of his interviews since the incident was made known. He is entitled to his politics, he is entitled to his ancestry and he is entitled to be proud of what his grandfather did or did not do. However, he also has a duty as chief executive of the FAI to be extremely sensitive in regard to matters pertaining to Irish politics and, in particular, matters relating to the awful conflict which killed thousands of people on this island. I would ask the Minister of State, if he could, to comment on that issue.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator's time is up.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Independent)
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To conclude, I support the motion. I know the Cathaoirleach is attempting to be helpful and I will try to kill two birds with the one stone. The other issue I would like the Minister of State to take up with Mr. Delaney and the FAI, and to be as robust as possible on, is the shocking state of League of Ireland football. I remember a time in the 1970s when 25,000 people were attending League of Ireland football games in Cork city, when 10,000 or 15,000 were regularly attending derby games in Cork city and, I am sure, when there were huge crowds at Dundalk, Athlone, Dalymount Park and all over the country. We need to put in place a significant restructuring plan for soccer on this island. While the Minister of State is not behind the door when it comes to funding Irish soccer, I ask him to ensure that a significant proportion of the funding is put into a planned redevelopment, regeneration and rebuilding of the League of Ireland. We look for the grandfather clause and the great-grandfather clause to pick up players left, right and centre in England when we would have brilliant soccer players in our towns and villages if the structures were put in place to develop them. That is a project which I hope the Minister of State, as a committed Minister and committed soccer fan, will take on board.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I had not planned on speaking but, given the topic we are discussing, I could not let the opportunity pass. Senator Bradford makes some valid points. I believe the incident on YouTube was most unfortunate and I am sure it is something Mr. Delaney greatly regrets. It certainly has not done any favours to the soccer community.

We are here to recognise the critical role sport plays in our society and to appreciate its significant health benefits. In welcoming the Minister of State, I want to acknowledge the contribution he has made to ensuring that, even in very difficult times, the budget for sporting activities and recreational facilities throughout our country has been safeguarded and fought hard for. Knowing his commitment to sport at all levels and in all codes, we need to acknowledge the fine work he is doing as Minister of State with responsibility for sport.

Hopefully, we will see two further sports capital programmes in the lifetime of this Government. In addition to providing the facilities that are badly needed throughout our communities, there are other elements to this. It gives a real economic boost to small communities when facilities are supported by Government and it gives encouragement to those communities to drive on, to fundraise and to ensure the best possible facilities are made available. If that encouragement from Government were not available, these developments would probably never happen in many communities.

We now have a situation throughout all our counties, including my own county where, bit by bit, each small community is getting facilities in place of which we can all be extremely proud. It is right on a day like this that we would acknowledge our elite sportspeople, such as Katie Taylor, golfers like Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, and all of those people who have really put our country on the map. However, sport is about more than that. It is about all of the young people who will never compete on the world stage or compete for their county but who go out and exercise and participate, and are proud of the levels they achieve. It is about the people involved in the Special Olympics and all of the new Irish communities who are living among us and getting involved in playing soccer and GAA, and really adding to the sense of pride and involvement.

It is critical, when we talk about health and the fight against obesity, that we would encourage every young person to get involved in sport and exercise at some level. Previous speakers have referred to the fact there is not enough emphasis in the primary schools on exercise and setting aside time for physical education. The local clubs - the soccer clubs, GAA clubs and rugby clubs - are playing a major part in helping in that fight against obesity.

With regard to the volunteers who come out in all weathers at their own expense to give generously of their time, we cannot say enough to acknowledge the contribution they make to life in our communities and the time they give back. We particularly have to acknowledge all of the well-known sports stars, of all codes, who give time to their clubs and their local communities when they have finished playing themselves.

My own county of Galway has been prominent, particularly in the GAA code. I know we have been through a fairly lean time recently but we think back to the wonderful players of the 1960s and the three-in-a-row team that brought such distinction, as well as the great hurling team of 1980 that broke the duck after 57 years by winning an all-Ireland hurling title.

People like the great rugby player Ciaran Fitzgerald and Noel Mannion who is from my town, Ballinasloe, and ran the length of Cardiff Arms Park to score a great try for Ireland all those years ago are involved in helping and coaching young people in Ballinasloe.

We appreciate the work the Minister of State has done and the investment he has helped communities to make to enhance and improve sports facilities. We hope he will receive a very generous allocation in the forthcoming budget to ensure some of the projects which narrowly missed out on the last occasion - he knows about them as I have spoken to him about them - will receive some assistance to finish some of their fine work. In a sports mad country we are proud of our achievements. We acknowledge the wonderful international sports stars who have put the country on the map, but we also encourage and support those who compete at the lowest level in all clubs. I again acknowledge the fantastic people who help them to be the very best they possibly can be.

4:10 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Terry Brennan for tabling the motion which gives us all an opportunity to discuss the value and contribution of sport, not only to Irish society but also the economy generally and everyone who participates in or likes to watch sport. Reference has been made to Katie Taylor's victory this week and many other events.

The value of sport to the economy has been well documented. The 2010 Indecon report showed that for every euro the Government invested in sport, the value to the economy was almost one and half times that amount. It showed that the net contribution to the Exchequer was over €300 million when there was an investment of just over €618 million in 2008. The figures will stand still this year, whatever amount is spent by the Government, but it is clear that there is a return on the investment made. I understand from the Indecon report that the contribution to the economy by sport is about €1.8 billion. The report is very good because it analyses the household spend on sport - €1.885 billion - and the breakdown of that figure in terms of sports clothing, sports-related publications, donations and so on. It is useful and helpful in underlining that the money spent by the Minister of State and his Department on sport results in a net contribution to the economy generally. From an economic point of view, it is a worthwhile investment.

The contribution to facilities through the sports capital programme has been mentioned. I welcome the reopening of the programme. It was the right thing to do and is benefiting areas across the country.

The wider issue of the betting tax, how it was used and the money made available was also discussed by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and in the Seanad. Some €60 million was made available to Horse Racing Ireland and Bord na gCon. Not all of that money comes from the betting tax; some of it is taxpayers' money. This year, for example, about €54 million was made available, a figure which will increase next year. Approximately 50% of it came from the taxpayer and 50% from the betting tax, which will increase from 1% to 2% and result in a benefit. While I support the funding of HRI and Bord Na gCon, when a punter places a bet online or off-line on a football match, Eamonn Coghlan running years ago or another event such as the Katie Taylor fight, the tax gathered goes straight into the horse racing or greyhound racing fund and that is not right. A percentage of the money should be made available for sport, given to the Irish Sports Council and used to improve participation and activity levels across the board. Sport does not just mean competing at a world level or with an inter county team. Benefits can be derived for physical well-being and mental health.

We have to examine participation rates. The Irish Sports Council, through Mr. John Treacy, is the way to do this. It has the network through the sports partnerships. The Minister of State needs to make the case that a percentage of the money gathered from the betting tax should be ring-fenced in the Department and used to help children to become involved in some way in sport. This would help to cut down the rate of obesity, which is endemic across Ireland. Trinity College Dublin carried out a survey in Tallaght which found the lack of sports activities in schools was having an impact on obesity levels. Senator Eamonn Coghlan did some excellent work in this regard. There is a need to include sport in the junior and leaving certificate curriculums. Unless this happens, there will not be a buy-in at primary school level. Often teachers, because they feel they are not competent, even though they may be, do not want to buy in to engaging in physical activity at primary level. This is an issue we have to examine as a country.

Sports drinks represent a massive multi-billion euro industry worldwide and a multi-million euro industry in Ireland. It would better to drink water, even though we will be paying for it shortly, than Lucozade, Gatorade and other drinks. It would also be cheaper. As someone who participates in sport and has a background in nutrition, I know such drinks are very dangerous, as they are very high in sugar and salt and corrosive on teeth. People believe they are beneficial, but a 500 ml bottle of Gatorade or Lucozade Sport contains about 52g of sugar. A young or other person involved in amateur sport who does a three or four mile run and then drinks such a drink will find that the calories he or she burned during the physical activity were lower than those in the bottle. The Minister of State should challenge the industry that is making millions of euro in selling these drinks. Coca Cola, Mars and other multinational companies are behind such products. They have slick marketing campaigns and need to be taken on, as young people are being exploited.

Another issue involves the protein shake and drink industry. These products have harmful effects on people's health such as those with heart defects. The Minister of State should also take on this industry. The public would welcome it, as they would reduce unnecessary expenditure on drinks which are full of sugar and salt and have no benefits. One would be far better off mixing water with a little salt and diluted orange, as one would have a far better sports drink than those which cost €3 or €4 in a shop. I ask the Minister of State to take on the drinks industry and to go after some of the money in the pot raised from the betting tax. It should be used to fund participative, rather than elite, sport.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, to the House. It is always a great occasion when he comes to this Chamber as he is always so positive. We are a sports mad nation. Senator Ó Domhnaill is a Member I regularly meet in the fitness room and in regard to sport and healthy living, he practices what he preaches. I agree with him that dealing with the industry is challenging. We should take a partnership approach. In fairness to him, the Minister of State has succeeded in bringing a number of sports capital grant programmes over the line, in spite of the terrible economic conditions at the time. The Minister of State ensured there was equity and fairness across the board, that small clubs that were doing extraordinary work were recognised. He also ensured the equitable distribution of grants across counties. In addition, he made sure that once a programme qualified, a percentage went to each county. I sincerely hope that he may have some additional money to invest in the programme for the new year and that it will be equally successful.

Oireachtas Members talk all the time about equality. Sport creates equality. Regardless of people's background, once they have a talent for running or football, they will get on a team and play. What better way to create a society of equals than through sport? We have a programme for elite athletes and we are all very proud of them. We have Paralympics athletes and Special Olympics athletes of whom we are very proud. I have spoken to the Minister of State previously about people with disabilities who are not elite athletes but have a right to participate in sport, the same as any other citizen

4:20 pm

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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They have done us proud in the Special Olympics.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Indeed they did. I should commend Senator Brennan for tabling this positive motion. We have negative politics and we have seen what has happened with the water issue in the past number of weeks. I espouse positive politics and sport is another great way of creating positive politics. I would like to see a requirement that the clubs that get sports capital grants in the next round should ensure their facilities are accessible for people with physical disabilities. If the infrastructure of the clubs does not meet the accessible standard that at least their coaches sign up for accessibility training and there is an honest effort to include people with physical disabilities in the community from towns and villages in the club activities. I would like to see a programme that creates equality among people and as I have said already, sport is a great way of achieving that. We have an opportunity to ensure that everybody who wishes to participate in sport and live a healthy life has an opportunity to do so.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank all the Senators for their very kind comments. There is no doubt that sport is the common denominator that brings everybody together. All the Members spoke positively about sport. I will try to answer some of the queries that were raised, but if I do not cover them all, I will return at some other stage. Some very good points were made. A reference was made to the betting tax and that was the reason for establishing the national lottery. We thought the proceeds from the lotto would go to sport, but it now goes into central government. My Department, like every other Department, must fight for its share of the money. The sport with the highest level of betting is soccer. The Senator is quite correct that the betting tax is going into the racing industry. Senator Bradford and I clashed over this issue many years ago. There should be equality. I think if funding is going into horseracing, it should go into every other sport as well.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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That is what should happen.

I thank Senator Brennan for tabling this motion and the House for allowing me an opportunity to speak today. It is a long time since we had a debate on sport and I think more regular debates on sport is positive. I will begin by addressing the twin issues of the role of sport in Ireland and the contribution made by volunteers.

As the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, I am committed to increasing and developing participation and an interest in sport improving standards of performance and developing sports facilities. All of this contributes to a healthier society and an improved overall quality of life. I strongly believe that sport has the potential to enrich the lives of all people and we should all recognise the benefits that can be gained from being active.

This year, the sports and recreation services programme allocation increased by 28% on the allocation for 2013. This is mainly as a result of the additional funding of €11.5 million voted under the Government's stimulus programme for the sports capital programme and the allocation of €13 million towards the development of the national indoor arena at the National Sports Campus in Dublin. This is a very significant investment in Irish sport and is a strong indication of our commitment.

The Irish Sports Council will receive funding from my Department of €42.5 million. The focus of this spending is on increasing participating in sport and physical activity. This is one of the key objectives of my Department. I am very aware of the efforts that are being made by the governing bodies of sport in encouraging greater participation in sport. I will continue to work with the Irish Sports Council and the new body, Sports Ireland, following the merger of the council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority to ensure that there are greater sporting opportunities for young people in the future.

The health and social benefits of sport are widely recognised. One of the most urgent health issues in Ireland is obesity. Research shows that 38% of Irish people are overweight and 23% are obese. A worrying aspect is that one in four Irish children are carrying excess weight. It is clear an increase in the participation in sport and physical activity added to diet control would greatly benefit the overall health of the country and would lower the costs to the health sector. A healthier population would help to reduce public spending in the future.

The estimated economic cost of obesity is €1.13 billion per year. With that in mind, Healthy Ireland, a new government framework for action to improve the health and wellbeing of people and to reduce the risks posed to future generations, was launched last year. It is a whole-of-government approach and the involvement of local communities, as well as all of society is required. One of the commitment of the Healthy Ireland framework is the development of a national physical activity plan and my Department is co-chairing a cross-sectoral working group with the Department of Health to develop this plan. This is an example of the improved co-ordination and partnership between Departments and agencies in the area of sport and physical activity over the past number of years. It recognises the cross-cutting nature of the sport sector in areas such as health and education. We need to continue with this approach. It is expected that a draft national physical activity plan will be circulated for consultation shortly with key stakeholders.

We are very luck to have a host of very talented and highly skilled sportsmen and women who are wonderful role models for our young people. Last year was an exceptional year for high performance sport in Ireland with a record 67 medals achieved at world and European events. To date this year, 54 medals have been achieved. I hope the success of our sports people will inspire and encourage the younger generation to participate in sport and gain from the many benefits that sport can bring.

I am very encouraged by the latest data which show an increase in the number of people participating in sport. Figures from the Irish Sports Monitor Report for 2013 show that participation has increased from 44.8% in 2011 to 47.2% in 2013.

The value of participating in sport and physical activity cannot be underestimated. Every small improvement in participation levels means better health, social and economic benefits for individuals, and for society as a whole.

As well as measuring participation in sport, the Irish Sports Monitor examines social participation in sport through volunteering, club membership and attendance at sporting events. The 2013 report estimates that the economic value of volunteering could be over €1 billion a year. This highlights the importance of its contribution to Irish society. Sport in Ireland would not exist without the 500,000 people who volunteer throughout the country every year.

4:30 pm

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Volunteers are a vital part of every club and sporting organisation around the country and are doing wonderful work for sport in their communities. Volunteers play a major role in maintaining the high level of sporting activity in Ireland, with all the associated health and social benefits, and contribute significantly to the development of elite sport in Ireland, which has done so much to enhance the international reputation of Irish sport. Athletes in every sport can only reach their potential because of the support, encouragement and inspiration they receive from the volunteers in their clubs. Last week I was delighted to present the National Volunteers in Sport Awards to ten people who have made outstanding voluntary contributions to sport in Ireland. The awards celebrate the contribution of volunteers to Irish sport and have gone from strength to strength since they were first introduced in 2007, with a record number of nominations this year.

I now turn to the issue of attracting international sporting events to Ireland. The programme for Government includes a commitment that event tourism will be prioritised in order to continue to bring major events to Ireland. The hosting of major sporting events, including both sports participation and spectator sports, can provide a great showcase for Ireland and drive international visitor numbers, and the media coverage of sports tourism events helps to put Ireland onto travel itineraries as a holiday destination. Accordingly, the Government is supportive of the ongoing efforts of the tourism agencies and the national governing bodies of sport to attract international events, subject to an assessment of the costs and benefits involved in any State financial support, in particular the number of overseas visitors.

Other important sporting events take place each year, for example, the GAA All-Ireland series, the Six Nations rugby and the Irish Open. Where appropriate, the tourism bodies work with these and other sporting bodies to maximise the tourism benefit of events. For example, the Irish Open has received significant support from Fáilte Ireland. The Giro D'ltalia and the American football match between the University of Central Florida and Penn State earlier this year are further evidence that the island of Ireland can successfully host large international events. I was delighted to see that the FAI and Dublin City Council recently succeeded in their bid to host part of the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament at the Aviva Stadium, a bid which had the strong support of the Government. This is a fantastic opportunity to host a premier international tournament. I am also delighted that Dún Laoghaire Golf Club is set to host the 39th Curtis Cup match in 2016, highlighting the excellence of the golfing facilities available in Ireland.

Senators will be aware that last November the Government considered a memorandum on the discussions and analysis to date on a potential bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. While the memorandum identified a number of challenges, the great potential of the event is also clear. Hosting the Rugby World Cup on a cross-Border basis in 2023 would be a great opportunity for Northern Ireland and Ireland. In response to the memorandum, the Government expressed strong support for the proposal and for further work to get to the stage of making a formal decision to bid. In order to progress the matter further, we met with Arlene Foster and Carál Ní Chuilín, the Ministers responsible for tourism and sport, respectively, in the Northern Ireland Executive, in Armagh on 22 January. We agreed to establish a working group to examine some key issues further and to report back to Ministers in the summer. The working group, chaired by Hugo MacNeill, and comprising the IRFU and relevant Government Departments from both jurisdictions, has submitted its report and its conclusions and recommendations are currently being considered.

All Members of this House are familiar with the sports capital programme, SCP. It provides much-needed funding to voluntary, sporting and community organisations for the provision of sports and recreational facilities. More than 9,100 projects have benefitted from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to over €825 million. The programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every village, town and city in the country. The facilities that have been funded range from small clubs to national centres of sporting excellence. In 2012 we were pleased to make allocations totalling €31 million under the 2012 round of the SCP, the first round of the programme since 2008. The absence of an SCP between 2008 and 2012 meant that there was a huge level of demand for grants. Consequently, we had a record number of applications in 2012 with a total of 2,170 applications. We were delighted to be able to make changes to the programme in 2012 to make it accessible to more clubs and organisations than ever before. These changes also contributed to the record number of applications in 2012. We were pleased to announce a total of €40.5 million earlier this year under the 2014 round of the SCP. A total of 2,036 applications were received under the 2014 programme, the second highest number ever received. In total, 821 of the successful allocations were to local sports clubs and organisations, with the remaining 59 allocated to regional or national projects.

Senators will appreciate that with such high levels of demand for grants, it will never be possible to fund all applications. Such high demand highlights the importance of the SCP. Unfortunately, our resources can only go some of the way to meeting such a high level of demand, and we fully understand that it leaves some grantees disappointed at not receiving funding. This continuing high level of demand for sports capital grants shows how important facilities are in providing people, both young and not so young, with more opportunities to participate in sport. It also shows how important the SCP is in helping organisations develop modern fit-for-purpose facilities. If we are to encourage people to participate in healthy sporting activity, it is only right that we do the best we can to assist these people in having decent facilities. Indeed, one of the key features of the SCP is that it helps to take some of the pressure off the shoulders of sporting organisations, and the volunteers involved in those organisations, by providing much needed finance to assist in the completion of projects. This is a concrete and real recognition of the role played by these organisations and by the volunteers involved. It is one way of saying "thank you" to those people for the all the excellent work they do, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, year in and year out.

I am determined that as a society, and as a Government, we continue to demonstrate our support for the Irish sporting family, and for the countless volunteers who do a remarkable job for Irish sport and for the young people of Ireland, and we will continue to invest in facilities to help those volunteers in their excellent work. We are a sports-mad nation, and we rightly reserve a special place in our hearts for those who excel at the highest level. They inspire us all, they fill us with national pride, and they serve as great role models for young people. Elite performance is one side of the coin. The other side involves hundreds of thousands of people who will never be elite performers in their chosen sport, but who love sport, and who participate for the sheer fun involved. Anybody who travels throughout their county at the weekend cannot help being amazed at the number of sporting events taking place at any given time. We must continue to support those people and their activities, and that's what the SCP is all about.

In this regard, I am delighted that we were successful in receiving enough money for 2015 to launch another round of the SCP next year.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear. Good man.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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This will be the third round of the SCP since this Government came into office, a very significant achievement by any standards, particularly against the backdrop of the continuing economic challenges facing the country.

While details of the 2015 programme will be announced in due course, the third round of the sports capital programme since 2012 shows the Government's commitment to sport and to the excellent work being done by sporting organisations the length and breadth of the country.
In conclusion, I again thank the Senators for tabling this motion, and I thank all Senators who attended today. In reply to Senator Moran, she is quite correct that we have many sporting organisations and a high level of participation, particularly in the Special Olympics and the Paralympics. I had the honour and pleasure of being in Greece for the Special Olympics and stood under the Irish flag. It was the happiest day I have experienced in sport, and I never enjoyed anything like it. Being the true sportspeople that they are, the athletes gave it 100%. Many other Senators made contributions today and I would like to come back to the House on another occasion to go through them. I would particularly like to thank those who were so kind in their comments.
On the issue of the sports capital programme, there is one thing I would like to put on the record loud and clear. The allocation of funding on a pro ratabasis, a practice I introduced, has worked and I think it will become the norm for the future. I do not think any other Minister will be able to go back again to the bad old days. In some cases, and probably in rural Ireland, there has been disadvantage. Dublin has been lucky. Every valid sporting organisation in Dublin that made an application for the sports capital programme actually got funding. We had bigger problems in rural Ireland because we had a very large number of applications but we did not have the resources and money to be able to deal with all these projects.
I have to take this opportunity to congratulate Katie Taylor. She is a brilliant role model who will be in Irish sporting history for the rest of her life. She is such an example to sportspeople in the way she behaves, carries herself and performs.

4:40 pm

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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We are so lucky to have somebody of her talent as a role model for young people, particularly for young girls. I cannot congratulate her enough. That is why, in my first year in office as Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, I looked to see who had gained the most from the sports capital programme. Was it the GAA, soccer, rugby or athletics? I looked at the minority sports to see what I could do for them. For boxing, I introduced a situation where, for grants of up to €25,000, a short-term lease would do and the club did not have to own the property. I did that because boxing clubs, by nature, do not have the facilities of other clubs. Over the last three years I introduced a scheme and gave the Irish Amateur Boxing Association €1.2 million in the first year, €1 million in the second year and almost €1 million again last year. I let them administer that all over the country to make sure that basic facilities would be put in place for clubs for the boys, and particularly the girls, who are taking up boxing. I am delighted that I did that.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State need only look at the medals.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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It is about participation. I brought in a second scheme for swimming pools. Every place I visited I was hearing from the local authorities and the people running swimming pools that they just could not afford to run them any more. We brought in a special energy saving scheme and upgraded a large number of pools. I am hoping to be able to open a new round in the new year.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The swimming pool in Drumshanbo is an example.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Yes; that is in Senator Mooney's own constituency. I am very proud of that development. It is an outdoor pool, and people in his constituency are as entitled to have that as the people who live near the National Aquatic Centre here in Dublin.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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We have the plaque with the Minister of State's name on it for posterity.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Deputy Mooney's father built it.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Yes, and posterity is very important too.

Senator Coghlan spoke about having more athletics facilities available. I had a special scheme to set up a number of regional athletics tracks and I am delighted that they are all completed now. That is why the numbers are up this year. There is an increase of, I think, about 80% in the number of people joining athletics clubs, because we put the facilities in place. I am delighted to do that. We had the special allocation this year for Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and last week we also had the special allocation for soccer clubs in the regions. I will stand over that allocation. The FAI came forward and met and selected the applicants. I was disappointed that the Dublin media do not seem to want facilities any place else but in Dublin. I want them in Dublin but I want them in the rest of the country as well. The rest of the country is as entitled to have the facilities as Dublin is.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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We also did a special scheme for rugby. Every year, as long as I am there, we will look for ways to support sporting organisations, because it is not about elite athletes; it is about grassroots sports and giving young boys and girls and opportunity to participate. My plan as Minister of State is to try and keep it up. Senator Bradford raised two issues. One of them I will not get into, but as regards the League of Ireland - I know he is passionate about this - I want to congratulate Senator Moran and Dundalk on winning the league this year.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I thank the Minister.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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She did it on her own.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I did. I cheered them every bit of the way.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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The Secretary General of my own Department, Mr. Tom O'Mahony, is a long-term member of St. Patrick's Athletic, a club that has something in common with Mayo. They waited nearly 70 years and lost seven or nine cup finals - the hoodoo was on them in the final. I was so happy they won the final this year because that is one hoodoo lifted. There is one more to be lifted so that the Sam Maguire can come back to Mayo, and we hope that will be this year.

In relation to the very serious issue that was raised, I would love to see an all-Ireland soccer team. We have an all-Ireland rugby team and a lot of all-Ireland sporting teams. It would be great for that to happen and, although it is not under my control, it is something that should be looked at. We are a small nation and sport is so important to us. On the issue of the chief executive of the FAI, he did apologise, and rightly so. His song was very unwise, and all I would say is that the funding that I have to worry about goes to grassroots boards. The FAI does a lot of very good work here in Dublin - for example, the midnight leagues - that benefits every section of society, and the funding that I allocated has been spent very well.

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for all that good news. Senator Craughwell would like to make a few points.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I hope the Minister will forgive me for arriving a little late. I am delighted that the last time Mayo carried a cup across the Shannon, my grand-uncle, Paddy Moclair, was on the team. I hope we do not have to wait as long again. I know people are tired and have put a long day in so I will be brief. I ask the Minister to consider bringing together education and sport. I am mindful of one shining example of this, and that is in Kinsale, County Cork, under the directorship of principal Fergal McCarthy and his staff. There is no sport in Kinsale Community School that is not available to students. If a student expresses an interest in tiddlywinks they will set up a tiddlywinks club for that student. They have equestrian sport, golf, you name it, and on top of that they are constantly winning the Young Scientist competition. If we are going to fund sport it would be nice to consider putting some small amount of money aside for which schools could directly apply, to go into the non-mainstream sporting areas. GAA, soccer and rugby are well catered for in most schools, but the likes of a golf club would be less common. I know of one DEIS school that has a golf club running in north Dublin. The Minister could do a whole lot - his energy is known far and wide and he is doing a great job. No man can cover the country as fast as he can, and Mayo is well looked after while he is in the seat. I ask him to consider that. I was never much involved in sport myself. I look over at Senator Coghlan and I only wish I could walk.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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God be good to him. That is actually happening. We are having discussions with the Department of Education and Skills to get it on the curriculum as well. A lot of things are happening.

4:50 pm

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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I am particularly pleased to acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State in the House. I also acknowledge the contribution he has made from the heart and the part he has played with great gusto and enthusiasm. Ceapaim go bhfuil tú san áit ceart. He is in the ministry closest to his heart. I am particularly pleased that he has announced that the third tranch of capital funding will be available next year. That is a great news story. As he has done, I also acknowledge the volunteers. He has personally acknowledged their contribution the length and breadth of the country. They include men and women, the young and not so young, and also the youth. They do it on days when it is not right to put anybody out in the weather conditions, but they do it in the interests of sport.

It would remiss of me not to thank my colleagues not only on my own side but also on the other side of the House for supporting the motion.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is very welcome.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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This subject is close to my heart and it is nice to be able to say there was unanimous support for the motion and the Minister of State.

The working group working on the World Cup proposal is to be commended. As the Minister of State stated, we have the third best rugby team in the world and will find out next year if it is the best. We have the infrastructure and sports facilities, North and South, required to host the prestigious World Cup.

The Minister of State also mentioned our golfers, the opportunities offered by golf and what the sport does for the country. Our golfers are sports ambassadors the length and breadth of the world. There is great coverage of the international events held here.

I have not mentioned Katie Taylor until now. It must be acknowledged by one and all that her achievement is incredible. As somebody said, it equates to retaining the World Cup four times and it was all done in a period of ten years, as the championships are held every two years. We wish her well in her attempt to repeat her feat and perhaps she will retain her world championship before repeating her feat in London in Rio in 2016.

On the cross-Border appeal of hosing the Rugby World Cup, I agree wholeheartedly with what the Minister of State said. Without question, if we had had George Best, Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Danny Blanchflower and other colleagues, we would have won the World Cup in soccer. We must try to emulate what these sportsmen did. As the Berlin Wall has come down, nothing is impossible.

I again congratulate the Minister of State. He is doing a wonderful job and I love his enthusiasm, a sentiment shared by every other speaker.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.