Contribution to the Debate on the Sport Ireland Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)

September 25th, 2014 - Pat Breen

The contributions we have just heard show the spirit of two good punters and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is great to see the Opposition has such interest in this important Bill as the other side of the Chamber is empty. The Bill provides for the merger of the Irish Sports Council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority into a single authority, Sport Ireland. This merger is in line with the Government’s programme to rationalise a number of State agencies and is driven by our goal to ensure better service delivery and value for money for service providers, State agencies and, above all, taxpayers. The Bill also provides for Sport Ireland to become the statutory body with responsibility for our anti-doping programme and makes provision for the sharing of information between Sport Ireland and such organisations as the Garda Síochána, Customs and Excise and the Health Products Regulatory Authority. This is essential if we are to stamp out doping in sport.

The Irish Sports Council, ISC, was set up in 1999 and it has a number of very important functions to support sporting activity – its remit extends beyond supporting just elite international athletes. The ISC has been to the fore in encouraging greater participation at every level in sport, especially local level. This is hugely important because physical inactivity is now recognised as a serious risk factor for a number of chronic illnesses including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Experts believe that we can reduce our risks of developing these diseases by 50% simply by being physically active. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has focused on this, given his special responsibility in the area of sport. Sport is very important in the lives of many people, especially in my county, and Deputy Carey referred to this. The Clare team won the senior All-Ireland hurling final last year and was hurling champion at under-21 level three times in a row, which was important. These young players are role models for young people in Clare because participation in sports and leisure activities is rising throughout the country.

A key factor in this increased participation is awareness of the various activities that are available and this awareness has been driven by the development of the local sports partnership. In 2001 the Clare local sports partnership was set up and it has been successful because it brought together all of the key agencies in the county such as the vocational education committee, VEC, the local authority, Clare youth services, Clare Local Development Company, the chamber of commerce, the Clare Community Forum, the Clare sports forum, FÁS and the HSE. It has also been successful because it tailored its activities to cater for the local community and ensured that there was some activity in which everybody could get involved, no matter the level of fitness. Next week, in an effort to encourage people to improve their health and well-being during the autumn, a community active leisure week is being organised at the Shannon leisure centre. I wish everyone well with this initiative and encourage as many people as possible to avail of the various activities that are taking place in Shannon. Nationally, some 200,000 people participated in locally delivered programmes last year and an additional 200,000 took part in women in sport activities. Local sports partnerships are critical in the battle to encourage people to live a healthier lifestyle and I urge Sport Ireland to continue to support local sport partnership programmes.

Leisure activities are not just important from a health point of view, but make a huge contribution to tourism development. Last year, some 685 trails were registered with the Irish Sports Council under the national trails register, amounting to over 9,000 km of trails, and included walking, cycling, greenway and equestrian trails. This additional investment in various trails is testament to the renewed interest in participating in these activities and marketing promotions such as the Wild Atlantic Way. The Minister of State is very familiar with the Wild Atlantic Way because he initiated it with his Department. It is a fantastic programme that has greatly increased tourism and walking activities.

Now that Shannon Airport is on the up again we are encouraging tourists to land there and I know the Minister of State will not mind this as Knock Airport does not take trans-Atlantic flights. Cycling and walking trails are a new initiative that can form an important part of sport tourism. The development of greenway infrastructure will be critical to sustaining this segment of the market and I would like to acknowledge the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, for these projects. We are at an advanced planning stage of the greenway route that will link Ennis to Lahinch via Corofin and Ennistymon and the Minister has provided €40,000 in seed funding for the project. There is an idyllic coastline in County Clare and we already have a beautiful 20 km coastal walking trail which links the Cliffs of Moher to Doolin. When the Minister of State is in the area I encourage him to take this walk as it is a great magnet for tourism in Clare.

Last weekend we had the centrepiece of the GAA football season and millions of people all over the world tuned in to watch the All-Ireland football Final between Kerry and Donegal. Only three weeks ago the same was the case for the hurling final and this week everybody is eagerly awaiting the hurling replay on Saturday evening between Tipperary and Kilkenny. There is great anticipation around the Ryder Cup, especially given that Paul McGinley is captaining the side. The majority of Irish people love sport, whether it is hurling, football, golf, rugby, soccer or athletics, and while I know that the sports capital programme referred to by other speakers is not relevant to this Bill, funding is a real issue for many local sporting organisations. I am glad to say that my county shared in the €40.5 million which was spent under the programme this year and I compliment the Minister on the increase in funding. The increased funding is allocated on a per capitabasis and this has been instrumental to the success of many clubs in County Clare. Sports clubs that receive such funding are very grateful as it means a lot to small parishes so I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ring. Like the other contributors, I hope the Minister of State succeeds in his efforts relating to a new sports capital scheme for 2015.

There was not a dry eye in this country when Katie Taylor won a gold medal at the London Olympics. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, was there to congratulate Ms Taylor and was a bit shy on television. The victory lifted the country but it is important that we do not forget that her victory and those of other elite athletes would not be possible without the support that they received from the Irish Sports Council. Without such help they might not have won those medals. In 2012 some 67 medals were won at various world and European competitions, compared to six medals in 2001.
One can see the increase in the number of medals won by Irish athletes as a result of the Sports Council, and all those associated with it are to be complimented on the work they have done. The high performance programme has paved the way for our increased success.
At the London Olympics Irish athletes competed in 13 of the 26 sporting events. We won five medals and for the first time since 1980 we won medals in more than one sport. We should not forget the Paralympic team, which was most successful in winning 16 medals, including eight gold. If we invest in our athletes they will deliver success, as we have seen in recent years. They deserve our support and I hope that Sport Ireland will continue to invest in this programme. I am sure the Minister of State will comment on this.
I wish to turn briefly to the anti-doping aspect of the Bill. Part 4 outlines Sports Ireland’s responsibilities in terms of addressing doping in sport. While we all like to believe no doping exists in sport, events have taught us otherwise. One of the most high-profile cases involved Lance Armstrong, and as a result of a doping investigation, he lost his seven Tour de France titles.
The Irish Sports Council has responsibility for our anti-doping programme and in 2013, the programme cost more than €1.2 million. A total of 1,093 blood and urine tests were carried out in Ireland and overseas. At the European team championships last year, 49 pre-competition and 43 post-competition urine tests were carried out, and the success of the anti-doping programme in Ireland is because of the co-operation received from the national governing bodies and athletes. Initially the Sports Council carried out this function in line with our commitment to the Council of Europe ruling, but in more recent times additional requirements have arisen given our ratification of UNESCO convention which commits the Government to full compliance with the world anti-doping code launched in 2003 and revised in 2008. The Bill will put anti-doping on a statutory basis and will give Sport Ireland a stronger hand in the battle against doping. The majority of our sports people do not resort to the use of drugs to enhance their performance. It is worth pointing out that Irish athletes are among the most tested in the world and it is important that we continue this programme to maintain and enhance our teams’ reputations abroad.
I commend the Minister of State on bringing the Bill before the House and I have no doubt that the merger of the Irish Sports Council and the NSCDA into one entity, namely, Sport Ireland, will have undisputable benefits for the development of sport and related leisure activities throughout the country.