Is there bias in this year’s sports capital grants? Only in the eye of the begrudger

With €37m spread out among 994 clubs in 37 sports, some may be disappointed

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross: it probably feels like Christmas has come early for a lot of  clubs – and in many cases it has. Photograph:  Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross: it probably feels like Christmas has come early for a lot of clubs – and in many cases it has. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

 

There is no political interference in the allocation of sports capital grants. Period.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross has covered this ground before, so if there is any perception of interference this time round – in terms of bias or discrimination – that’s not for him to say, is it? Certainly not on Twitter anyway.

Besides, it’s all detailed there in the taxpayer’s money – €37,084,304 of it, to be exact.

However, unlike the last full round of sports capital grants announced in November 2017 (which was presented by Ross at the Arbour Hill Boxing Club in north inner city Dublin with understandable delight and satisfaction), the final set of 2018 allocations slipped seamlessly into the email box around noon on Friday, so any bias, discrimination or otherwise must be in the eye or ear of the receiver.

Starting in Carlow, with the €549 awarded to Bagenalstown Cricket Club for the upgrade of facilities and equipment, and finishing in Wicklow, with the €66,366 awarded to Woodenbridge Golf Club for a universal-access training facility and gym, that total of €37 million is spread out among 994 different clubs or projects, in 37 different sports, and across the 26 counties.

Not quite something for everyone in the audience, but still it probably feels like Christmas has come early for a lot of those clubs – and in many cases it has. The 2018 round also saw the highest level of interest since the Sports Capital Programme began in 1998, with 2,337 individual applications received when applications closed in October last year, which means quite a few in the audience were left disappointed too.

Survival money

It is the primary means of providing Government funding to sport and community organisations at local and regional level, but for many of those 994 clubs or projects this is simply survival money. More than 10,000 projects have now benefited since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to approximately €1 billion, impacting on virtually every village, town and city in the country, and usually money very well spent.

First in line was Imelda Munster of Sinn Féin, who wanted to know why 30 public schools were refused money

What brought Ross under fire after the 2017 allocations was his admittedly ill-placed tweet, in which he congratulated Wesley College, a private school in his constituency, for receiving a €150,000 grant for its hockey pitch. The initial application from Wesley was deemed invalid, but the school submitted an appeal in January 2018, one of only 35 of 149 such appeals to be successful.

This prompted wide-ranging accusations of bias and discrimination, depending on the point of view, starting with the question why Wesley College, whose fees start at €6,250 per academic year, even needed the money. Ross later found himself in front of an Oireachtas committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport having to explain. First in line was Imelda Munster of Sinn Féin, who wanted to know why 30 public schools were refused money, when they didn’t have the fine facilities of Wesley College.

“We did not change one comma, one allocation,” said Ross, explaining the process, the weighted scoring system, the six different criteria they used and how Wesley made a joint application with a sports club, YMCA, which had rights to facilities for over 31 hours a week for 15 years.

“We were determined that we wouldn’t be coming out in front of a committee today and hear that ‘the Minister interfered here’ or ‘the Minister interfered there’. This opens it to a totally new community. It opens a private ground to the community.”

There is no political interference in the allocation of sports capital grants. Period.

Under fire

Ross came under fire again earlier this year, when another €6.9 million in sports capital grants, for 170 projects that were last year deemed invalid, was announced, and almost 5 per cent of that went to four projects in his own constituency, totalling €325,100. The biggest of these was at Jesus and Mary College, Our Lady’s Grove, Goatstown, which was allocated the maximum amount of €150,000 for a new astro-floodlit pitch with changing rooms, Kilmacud Crokes GAA club in Stillorgan also receiving €149,600 for new dressing-rooms.

So, to address any perceived or otherwise bias or discrimination this time round: in relation to how individual allocations were decided, the overall funding is first divided on a county basis, factoring in the population of the county and the level of applications from that county. So there’s naturally a bias towards Dublin there.

It’s why Dublin got the highest total award of €7,555,281, followed by Cork (€4,186,348), Galway (€2,287,997), Meath (€1,804,537) and Kildare (€1,762,143). Any bias there is towards the needs of the population.

We have introduced significant changes to the programme to make the whole process as user-friendly as possible

It’s also why only three clubs received the maximum €150,000 this time round, and they’re all from Dublin: Mount Temple Comprehensive School (for relaying of astro-turf hockey pitch), Sheriff Youth Club (development of multi-sport clubhouse), and Knocklyon Community School (building of multi-sport dressing rooms/showers/toilets).

A revised scoring system was also agreed and published in advance of the assessment work commencing: the likelihood of increasing sport participation, the level of disadvantage in the area, and the funding received by the club previously were the main considerations of the score obtained at assessment stage.

Disadvantaged area

The score obtained at assessment stage was the key determinant of the individual grant amount, in part discriminating against those clubs that weren’t in a disadvantaged area or who had previously received a grant. It’s why Donegal received €1,392,884 in total, Limerick €1,601,161, Mayo €1,143,492, Clare €1,051,538 and Wicklow €1,079,820.

“The assessment process was designed to prioritise projects that shared facilities, that came from disadvantaged areas, and did not receive substantial funding under the programme previously,” explained Minister of State Brendan Griffin. “We have introduced significant changes to the programme to make the whole process as user-friendly as possible, including the simplification of the application form, giving applicants an opportunity to correct applications during the assessment phase, and the introduction of an appeals system for unsuccessful applicants.”

Which might also explain why many other TDs and politicians were tweeting their delight, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar congratulating in no particular order the successful grants awarded to clubs in his constituency, including the Phoenix cricket club, Garda Rugby Football club, Garda GAA club, Clonee United FC, St Oliver Plunkett Eoghan Ruadh GAA club, Castleknock Tennis Club, and Metro St Brigid’s athletics club.

There is no political interference in the allocation of sports capital grants. Period.

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