Ian O'Riordan: Goodbye Shane Ross and thanks for the sporting memories

He championed such great Irish athletes as ‘Dominant Puspure’ and ‘Thomas Barry’

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross with his wife, Ruth Buchanan, at the Citywest count centre last Sunday following  his election defeat.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross with his wife, Ruth Buchanan, at the Citywest count centre last Sunday following his election defeat. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

We were somewhere outside of Edendork in the driving rain when Shane Ross came on the radio. Just like football management and songs by Leonard Cohen, there aren’t many happy endings in politics, only prompt goodbyes, and was it hard not to feel some sympathy for the man as he conceded defeat. 

Hunter S Thompson always said that not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. “But it is,” he reckoned. “They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal – like all junkies. It’s a rush that a lot of people will tell you is higher than any drug they’ve ever tried or even heard about, and maybe better than sex . . .”

Shane Ross may not entirely agree, although he clearly got some kick off his job. “I was hoping to be elected,” he said, not long after being excluded on Sunday’s fifth count, “but Dublin Rathdown punishes its poll-toppers frequently with a consistency that is quite alarming, and it’s nearly always cut down to size those who topped the poll the time before.” 

Indeed, Ross topped leafy Dublin Rathdown in the 2016 general election, a year after he co-founded the Independent Alliance. With that, then-taoiseach Enda Kenny nominated him as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, which straight away felt like an uneasy alliance. 

It possibly didn’t help that his first international sporting cap came at the unravelling mess that were the Rio Olympics. Ross was, by his own admission, “put back in his box” by Pat Hickey, then president of the artists formerly known as the Olympic Council of Ireland, after he flew out to Rio to check up on the early days of the ticketing scandal, before Hickey himself was put in a Rio jail cell.

Ross appeared to stick to more modest sporting confines after that, such as stewarding at the Marlay parkrun

That distraction might possibly explain too why Ross prematurely tweeted “Go Katie Go!” shortly after Finnish boxer Mira Potkonen ended Taylor’s reign as Olympic champion, or later congratulated the mysterious “Thomas Barry” for finishing fourth in the 400m hurdles. Either way, he got out of there with his duty-free. 

Still, this didn’t deter his bold sporting ambitions, Ross telling an Oireachtas committee a year later that he would explore the possibility of Dublin hosting the Olympics, if Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup is successful.

‘Credible bidder’

“We’re now thinking in these terms and it’s very, very exciting. Let’s think about the Olympics. I remember Gay Mitchell suggesting [it] some years ago, and he was laughed to scorn, now it’s a real, realistic prospect. If we build up these stadiums and we are a credible bidder, which we obviously are if we win this bid, I think the sky’s the limit.” 

As it turned out, Ireland didn’t win that Rugby World Cup bid, and Hickey would probably have put Ross back in his box again anyway had he still been in the game, given he was the one who famously responded by saying “we couldn’t even build the jacks” when it came to hosting the Olympics, after that suggestion was first put forward by Mitchell, then lord mayor of Dublin, back in 1992.

Ross appeared to stick to more modest sporting confines after that, such as stewarding at the Marlay parkrun the odd Saturday morning, while also learning the difference between rugby superstars Rob and Dave Kearney, Ireland under-21 football manager Stephen Kenny and someone called Shane Kenny, and a Dominant Puspure and a dominant rowing performance by Sanita Puspure.

His last sporting act will go down as helping to secure the €30 million-plus that wasn’t a bailout for the FAI

His awareness of the importance of funding for sport rarely went unchecked either, especially when it came to the €150,000 he was “delighted to confirm” for the fee-paying Wesley College in that same leafy Dublin Rathdown, and also the post-funding he suddenly produced for the Ireland women’s hockey team after they made the 2018 World Cup final. 

For better or for worse, his last sporting act will go down as helping to secure the €30 million-plus that wasn’t a bailout for the FAI, who Ross acknowledged had helped “cooked his goose” on St Stephen’s Day along with the judges and the vintners, while around the same time ignoring a cry for some financial help from an Irish basketball association where participation numbers and spirits are soaring.

That true sporting knowledge or interest aside, there is a more pertinent reminder of his term in office: being Minister in a Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is no easy feat, as indeed any one of his seven predecessors over the last two decades could have told him. Like some new wifi plan, sport has been bundled in with tourism, recreation, the arts, culture or transport since Jim McDaid held the office from 1997 to 2002, never once, it seemed, getting its full priority. 

Knowledge of sport

When John O’Donoghue took over as minister for arts, tourism and sport from 2002-2007, his knowledge of sport was rarely questioned. I also have to thank him for getting me to the Athens Olympics on time in 2004; the only reason our connecting flight eventually took off, it appeared, was because there was a minister on board (or perhaps because O’Donoghue had a limousine waiting at the other end). He did after all claim €126,000 in just two years of travel expenses, mainly to attend sporting events such as Cheltenham and Ascot.

Consistency and continuity are the two buzzwords you hear most around sport and that should go for the office as well

After that the late Séamus Brennan, Martin Cullen, Mary Hanafin and (yes) Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohue have held the office, before Ross was slipped in, and none of them ever made sport feel like a proper happy alliance either. Consistency and continuity are the two buzzwords you hear most around sport and that should go for the office as well. 

Perhaps now, with Sinn Féin caught in that three-way tie with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with this open mandate for change, there is more reason to be hopeful. Sport may not yet get a separate cabinet position, but it shouldn’t be just treated as leftovers once they get through health and housing and so on. Sinn Féin doesn’t have a great record or priority in sport, but now might be the chance for someone to seize it.

All we are saying is give sport a chance.

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