'You don't want to throw the baby out of the pram until we have something else to put into the pram'
Sport in the recession Part 5:As Michael Ring prepares to distribute the latest grants under the Capital Sports Programme, the Minister of State shares his views on sport in Ireland
When all the club lotto tickets are sold and the Texas Hold ’Em nights are dealt, sports clubs in every county still turn their lonely eyes to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to see if there’s any crumb of help left on the table for them.
At some point in the coming fortnight, junior minister Michael Ring will announce the latest of grants to be handed out under the Sports Capital Programme. It’s the first time since 2008 that a new round of funding will be made available and a flavour of the need for them is clear from the fact that although the department only has €30 million to award, it has received over 12 times that amount in applications.On the back of our week-long series on sports clubs in the recession, The Irish Times sat down with Ring in his Kildare Street office.
Malachy Clerkin: Was there an agreement from early on that you would take the sport side of things because you have more interest in it than Minister Varadkar?
Michael Ring: When the Taoiseach offered me the job you have to sit down with the senior Minister and break up the duties. Leo cannot run the whole thing, you just wouldn’t be able to. The Department of Transport alone is massive and then on top of that you have Tourism which is another massive department for a Government whose number one commitment is to create employment in the country. It wouldn’t be possible for one man to do the whole thing.
So what happens is certain parts get delegated and I got delegated the sport side of things. Leo attends some events if they’re in Dublin and I have no problem with that. But then I deal with the rest of sport.
MC: Looking through the applications for the Sports Capital Programme, you have a budget of €30 million but you’ve received applications for projects totalling €369 million. In deciding who gets what, where do you start?
MR: We brought this programme back after four years of not having. The last government used to run it every year but the money isn’t there to do that. So we’re bringing it back this year and we will do so again in 2015. The €30 million is small money is the overall context but it’s big money in bad days.
We won’t have another scheme again until 2015 as I say but because we’ve had so many applications this year, I’m going to go back to Government and Leo will support me on the basis that we might get a bit of funding next year. We won’t open it next year but we might try to deal with some of the unsuccessful applications.
You ask how will we split it up. It won’t be easy. In my own county alone, we have applications for around €18.5 million. I will make this very clear – I won’t be doing what other Ministers did. Each county will get whatever is agreed pro-rata.
MC: Didn’t you take some heat last year because of lottery funding, when you brought in €1.78 million for Mayo?
MR: Well, that was misconstrued. We had had no scheme since 2008. So what was happening was that we set up a scheme in relation to facilities for local authorities. A number of local authorities came in with applications for land they didn’t own but one of the criteria set down was that you have to own the land. So we couldn’t facilitate them when they didn’t qualify.
Everybody who applied for swimming pool money got it. They mightn’t have got it straight away but they got it eventually. And the same with local authorities. Every single local authority that applied and that fit the criteria got money.
But there was a problem in the reporting of it. We sent out information to every paper – including your own and the Independent – but what it was was journalists being mischievous. I don’t mind of it’s the truth but it wasn’t the truth. I was actually going to make a complaint to the Press Ombudsman but I didn’t bother in the end.
MC: What wasn’t truthful in the reporting?
MR: They were trying to make out that Mayo got more than they were entitled to. Mayo made the applications, as did Cork and Kerry and all the other counties. Dublin got the most money, Cork got the next most and if you take it per capita, Sligo was the number one and Leitrim number two. Mayo was number four on that list yet the media tried to make it that Mayo got more than anybody else.
MC: Yet you were in the Mayo News afterwards taking credit for it. Here’s what you said: “There’s grant aid available for my county and I am happy to allocate it. People will say the money could have been better spent nationally but we have money that has to be spent this year and it aims to create employment and badly-needed facilities . . . We have big plans for the region and we are looking out for it. Enda has a lot to watch but we have a great working relationship and I needed his support to get some of the tranches of funding approved and he wasn’t found wanting for his own county.”
MR: Well, what happened with the Mayo News was that there was criticism coming locally that we weren’t delivering any money. It’s a very simple thing – they were saying that we weren’t delivering. So I said then, ‘Here’s what we’ve delivered for Mayo since we came in.’ So you have the local people giving out to you for not delivering enough. And you have the Dublin media giving out to you for delivering too much. The media were saying that Mayo got more than it was entitled to and that wasn’t true.
MC: You can see though why the public is sceptical about this whole area, can’t you? You said yourself that ministers have looked after their own before.
MR: That’s why there’s no chance of this round of Sports Capital grants going the same way. It’s very simple. If I give Mayo 150 per cent of their allocation here, it might come in at about €300,000 more. All that would do is make their eventual total something like €1.2m or €1.3m or whatever it is they would get. What would be the point of me bringing all that hassle on myself? With €18.5m worth of projects being applied for? There’d be no point. I’m just going to give each county what it’s due.
MC: On a broader level, can you make it easier for sports to improve their own revenue streams? Will sporting bodies be able to register as charities like they do in the UK, which would make it easier for them to attract philanthropy?
MR: That’s something that is on-going. I wrote to the Minister for Finance to ask could he look at some kind of a scheme that would be like what happens with charities, whereby an individual could make a donation to a sporting body and get a tax break on the back of it. It happens in the arts and there’s no reason it shouldn’t happen in sport. We should be looking for more ways and means like that to fund sports in this country.
The whole area of sponsorship needs to be looked at. I would prefer, for example, that we didn’t have drink companies sponsoring sport. I would prefer not to see it happening but we have to live in the real world. The government is reducing its contribution to sport because of the recession and sponsorship is more and more difficult to get. It would be very hard for festivals and events to survive if we killed off drinks sponsorship overnight.
You don’t want to throw the baby out of the pram until we have something else to put into the pram. We want to get rid of drink sponsorship but we have to do it in a sensitive way and we have to work with the sporting organisations and the companies to do that.
MC: What’s the situation with betting tax? Will other sports outside of the horse and greyhound fund be entitled to a piece of that?
MR: I’m going to be European Minister for Sport for six months next year and among other things we’ll be looking at the whole issue of funding of sport. We’re hoping that in 2013 or 2014 that there will be for the first time ever some European funding for sport. If that comes to pass, governments all across Europe will be looking for a way to fund it and betting tax could be a big part of that. I mean, it’s wrong that people could be making money out of sport and not putting anything into it.
MC: After the Olympics, you got in trouble for saying that money was better off spent on sport than in hospitals . . .
MR: Well, I’ve been saying it for years. I probably didn’t phrase it properly but it’s obvious – and doctors have backed me up on this – it’s obvious that money spent on getting people to participate in sport is money that won’t have to be spent on health in later years. I wasn’t saying that sport and health should be competing for funding, that’s just not the case and it would never be the case.
MC: Yet you felt you had to come out and clarify that. Doesn’t that show that sport is not and never will be central to public life in Ireland?
MR: Yes, but I think it’s changing. There are a number of inter-committees taking place at government level with health, education and sport. At department level, they’re sitting down and working out what they can do for participation, what they can do to make people healthier.
MC: Does the HSE have a sports department?
MR: Well, they have some professional people there who are involved in getting people to participate a bit more in sport, people who are dealing with the health aspect of obesity and getting people to exercise more.
MC: But shouldn’t it be more than that? Why does it always feel like sport is an island off the shore of the mainland when it comes to government policy and national culture?
MR: You’re 100 per cent right. Participation in sport has raised from 34 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent today and that is mainly down to people losing their jobs and using sport as a boost for their body and soul in very tough times. None of us exercise enough and we have to change that.
MC: How though? You’re talking about a huge cultural change here. How do you do that?
MR: It’s fairly simple and the best example is the Tidy Towns movement. You start in the schools. We’re talking to the Department of Education now and we’re trying to set up a programme where we get sport on to the curriculum.
MC: Why isn’t it a Leaving Cert subject?
MR: I think over the years, sport kind of fell away. I suppose we were more focused as a country on higher education. It was all about getting points and getting degrees and getting the mind educated. But as a country, we forgot about the body and getting it right as well.
But I am very confident now that it will happen and that we will have it as an exam subject. There is a bit of work to be done yet and the people in Sport, Health and Education have to sit down together and tease it out. But yes, I definitely see it getting on to the curriculum. It has to happen and it will happen.
Olympics and Paralympics
MC: Did you enjoy the Olympics and Paralympics?
MR: It was the best experience of my life. I went for three days to each of them. The Paralympics was the highlight for me. What those people have done for disability is huge. Because before now, people mixed up Paralympics with the Special Olympics and that’s part of the problem.
But they’ve shown now what they’re capable of and they’ve done more for people with disabilities now to show them that there can be a future for them. Some of the disabilities involved, to see the way they performed was incredible. I think of the swimming, I think of the cycling and they’re the real heroes.
Mind you, I was very lucky for them. They hadn’t a medal won until I arrived. I was there on Super Saturday and I’ll be taking full credit for what they won that day.
MC: Joking aside, what role were you filling over there?
MR: We have to have representation from government. Every government in the world was there and we had to be there too. We got criticism for not being at the Closing Ceremony of the Paralympics actually. I would have been at it if I had been asked but I wasn’t asked.
I went for three days, the Taoiseach went and Leo went at different times. You must have government representation there. When these athletes are representing our country you have to show them respect. They’re Irish citizens representing Ireland and the Irish government must be represented.
I was glad that this time around, no minister went off and spent three weeks at the Olympics. We did things in a very low-key way but at the same time you need to be there to represent the country.
I was proud to be there when Katie Taylor won her gold medal, I was proud to be there for the other medals as well and also for the athletes that went out and competed and didn’t get anything. But there’s a difference between being there and overstaying your welcome.
MC: You were there for the homecoming though, up on the stage at the Mansion House. Do politicians not get that the public hate to see that?
MR: Look, I’ll say it again. There was no government representation at the Paralympic Closing Ceremony and the media made a big fuss of it. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I went no place that I wasn’t invited. I was invited to the Olympics and the Paralympics and I went. I was asked to do the send-off for both teams and I did. I was there for the homecoming.
But let’s just take the homecoming for the Paralympics. I left Westport at four o’clock that day. It was nearly ten o’clock when I got out of Dublin because the plane (bringing the athletes) was late. I went back to Mayo and it was nearly half-past two in the morning when I got back. Now, do you think I wanted to do that? I felt it was my duty as a government minister to do that. I felt the Paralympic team were as entitled to government representation as the Olympic team.
The Olympic homecoming, well there was a big row about it if you remember. And behind the scenes, I helped to resolve that problem. I didn’t put myself forward, I was invited to be there and the government was asked to have a representative. I’m the Minister for Sport so I was the one who went.
MC: But aren’t you just trying to associate yourself with success?
MR: Well look it, it’s like with the Mayo team. If I don’t go to their matches, I get criticised. If I go to their matches, I get criticised. You cannot win. At the end of the day, the Sports Council and my department put a lot of money into these people and it’s felt that we should be there giving government representation. Sometimes, maybe we’re controlled a bit too much by the journalists. There’s a difference between me being there for the homecoming and what Charlie Haughey did being out on the field.
That’s making a fool of the whole thing.