The minister for sport stood at the top of the room and gave his usual minister for sport speech. Politicians generally do little to hide their ennui at having to plough through these things but it was a part of the job that always seemed to enliven Michael Ring. In the business of grabbing a microphone and frothing forth on the joys of sport to a captive audience, there was no better man.
The occasion was the announcement of a round of grants to be handed out under the Go For Life scheme. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t know about unless it was your business to know about it – around €300k annually put aside to fund programmes for physical activity for older people. Nobody gets rich out of it but it’s the sort of thing that helps keep an aerobics class for the over 60s going or funds an outing for a men’s shed or an ICA group.
Big or small never mattered to the Ringer, though. This was about far more than the €290 for this active retirement group or the €400 for that local tennis club. It was about the role sport was playing in keeping the nation’s spirits high. It was about reminding everyone that no matter what age you are, sport will still be there for you.
His audience, made up mostly of seniors, listened along as he reached his crescendo. “It’s great to see so many of you here,” Ring said, voice soaring. “And with the help of God, hopefully we’ll see some of you back next year!” Facepalms all round.
For all his flaws, Ring did at least want the job when he got it. By contrast, any enthusiasm newly-installed minister Dara Calleary shows for the gig now will have been ginned up for appearances. Calleary spent the early part of the week grousing about not getting a senior ministry and ended it being thrown the bone of sport and the Gaeltacht to go along with the post of chief whip. A thinner skinned portfolio than sport might take offence at being such an obvious afterthought.
But sport is well used to it at this stage. In the tangled hustle of cabinet, sport will generally find itself hot-desking. It fits in where it’s told and doesn’t speak unless it’s spoken to. It sits there beavering quietly away until the next time, on the next whim, when it gathers its bags and baggage and trudges to a different corner of the table to start again. Sport is nearly always starting again.
On this go-round, it has found itself with no fewer than five bedfellows in Catherine Martin’s newly-imagined Department for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. Everybody has had their fun with the unwieldy title – hat-tip to Helena Ní Rócháin from west Kerry for her ‘Minister for Media, Culture, Arts, Tourism, Sport and the Gaeltacht and the tree in the hole and the hole in the bog and the bog down in the valley-o.’
It's a long way, right enough, from the mid-1980s when sport fell under the aegis of the Department of Education and Cork TD Donal Creed spent four years as the minister of State for school buildings and sport. Second billing to school buildings in a junior ministry – there has never been any danger of sport getting notions about its place in the world.
In a sense, however, the come-all-ye nature of Martin’s department need not be such a disaster for sport. Though it looks like an alphabet soup of a thing, the department is crucially free of one of the behemoths of government. In the past, sport has been variously lumped in with education, environment and transport, all of them with birthright claims to gargantuan slices of the pie.
Throughout the past decade under Shane Ross, Paschal Donohue and Leo Varadkar, sport and tourism had to find their place in a portfolio dominated by transport. The annual state funding subvention for public transport came to €287 million in 2019, for example. The equivalent direct funding for all of sport in the same period was €32 million, up from €20 million in 2018. An accounting error in the transport budget would fund a hefty chunk of what sport needs to get by from year to year.
Sport's fortunes in government are generally dependent on two factors – the interest of the Taoiseach and the heft of the ministers. Even if you class Bertie Ahern as a venal, grabbing populist, the fact remains that those aspects of his stewardship did sport no harm. He elevated sport to a senior ministry in 1997 and established the superstructure around which Abbotstown, Sport Ireland and funding have been built over the past two decades.
It would be a stretch to say we were always blessed by the calibre of his appointments, all the same. Jim McDaid was okay at getting it off the ground but ran into trouble near the end of his time when he called people who die by suicide “selfish bastards”. John O’Donoghue was generally seen as a strong voice for sport and good at getting funding for projects. Until he became rather too good at it and went mad on his expenses.
The sports brief entails a lot of rubber chicken, often more than the incumbent can endure. Ahead of an awards lunch in the Shelbourne one year, the minister in question let it be known that he was too busy to attend – only to be found downstairs in the hotel getting a haircut while the lunch was ongoing. Sadly for him, the barbers is on the way to the jacks in the Shelbourne and he was eventually prevailed upon to come up and stand in for a photo.
The darkest years for the sport brief were between 2007 and 2011, with a hotchpotch of Fianna Fáil square pegs sent to the round hole of sport for want of something to do with them. These were the Séamus Brennan/Martin Cullen/Mary Hanafin days when a combination of a brutal recession and ministerial disinterest meant sport found it hard to get any sort of foothold in government.
Cullen’s most notable contribution was to stand up in the Dáil in the wake of the Beijing Olympics and declare that it was pointless for Irish hopefuls for London 2012 to continue training in Ireland, even with world-class facilities. As for Hanafin, she dirtied her bib on her final day in office by appointing her party’s director of elections to the board of the Sports Council. Ultimately, Fianna Fáil gonna Fianna Fáil.
Under Fine Gael, sport got bumped down to a junior ministry again after 14 years as a full cabinet post. Ring came in under Varadkar to do the day-to-day stuff. The Mayo TD’s innate parish-pumpness was offset by the fact that Varadkar was destined for bigger things and so sport tended to do okay. Much the same happened when Donohue took over. There’s a lot to be said for having a cabinet heavyweight in the role, regardless of their limited interest in sport.
Speak to people in the sporting bodies and they'll tell you that Ross was actually far from the worst of them. His countless public gaffes – Dominant Puspure, Thomas Barry, Dave Kearney and so on – made him look far more out of touch than he was. He didn't particularly know his sport but he did know funding and he did know governance. He took more of a victory lap than he deserved in the matter of John Delaney's fall but he at least had the sense to pop his sail and take advantage of the way the wind was blowing.
Calleary, by his own admission, had no designs on the post he finds himself in. Still, he’s there now and his situation in life will only improve by making a go of it. For sport, the optimistic view is that it will be no harm to have not one but two deputy leaders of Government parties in charge. Especially since (a) Calleary has been universally accepted as having been shafted and thus could have some leeway to ask for things and (b) Martin could soon be the leader of the Greens and thus could have even more leeway to say yes.
The pessimistic view is that we’re in a health crisis with no apparent end and headed for a recession whose depth can only be guessed at and sport tends to get forgotten very quickly when either of those situations abounds.
Best we can do is cross our fingers, Ringer-style, and hope to God some of us will make it back next year.