There is no denying that Irish politicians, in recent weeks, have said things about immigrants to this country that betray an appalling ignorance — as well as a lack of basic humanity.
That they should do so given the history of Irish people being forced for centuries to seek to make lives in every corner of the world — including places where they, themselves, were the victims of boundless cruelty — is hard to comprehend.
In this context — that is to say, in the context of the inexcusable words of Noel Grealish and Verona Murphy — it seems appropriate to ask what role has sport to play in inclusion and integration, given the fact the number of immigrants to this country will continue to grow in the coming decades?
A starting point — in terms of public policy — for answering that question lies in the ‘National Sports Policy, 2018-27’ which the government published last year.
It referenced in its opening pages the idea that “active and social participation by migrants and ethnic minorities can help combat the social exclusion they often experience.”
Later, in a chapter on ‘Sport in A Cross-Sectoral and International Context’, the policy states: “The Migrant Integration Strategy 2017–2020... aims to identify and address barriers preventing migrants from participating on an equal basis with individuals of Irish heritage… Participation in sport has been identified in the strategy as having the potential to help the process of integration and a Communities Integration Fund has been established to support organisations in local communities, including sports clubs, to undertake initiatives to promote integration.
And through this fund, a total of €526,000 was made available to be shared across local community groups, sports clubs, faith-based groups, arts groups formal and informal schools, theatrical and cultural organisations wishing to carry out activities to promote integration and host communities, foster mutual cultural respect and encourage migrant participation in civil and cultural life.
The maximum grant amount that can be applied for is €5,000 and the minimum grant is €1,000.
Ultimately, just over €40,000 went to sporting clubs and associations, primarily those involved with Gaelic games and athletics. Clearly then, direct initiatives funded by the state will be of little impact.
Which brings us to sports organisations themselves. What do they propose to do? Do they have ambitions, aspirations, plans, funding commitments to promote integration?
Looking across the spectrum of Irish sporting organisations, it is clear that the answer to those questions is that everywhere — or almost everywhere — there are the right noises being made, but that meaningful actions depend on the efforts of a few key individuals in local clubs.
The activities of Ballyhaunis GAA Club or Carrick-on-Suir Rugby Club are a reflection of local initiative rather than a cogent organisational strategy.
Consideration of this matter comes down, in the first instance at least, to the question of why people play sport?
From this flows related questions: why do people join particular clubs or societies, or play particular games?
The question of motivation is, of course, a very complex one. We know why people say they do things when it comes to sport, but it would be gullible to simply accept such statements as the last word — the modern epidemic of sporting autobiographies makes that abundantly clear.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Part of that trying means looking at those who do not want to play sport or engage with sport in anything beyond a superficial manner. These are people who should not be made to play anything.
People who are not interested in playing sport should be left alone by parents and by teachers and by those who think that playing sport is inherently ‘a good thing.’ It’s not. Being made participate in an activity that leaves you feeling humiliated or incompetent on a routine benefit is not of worth to anyone — it damages rather than develops.
But the very nature of our modern sporting world in Ireland — at least in how it relates to the major sporting organisations — is also a block to people who wish to play.
This is a block that gets at the idea of sports clubs and their nature. Across all our major sporting organisations, and many of our minor ones, the idea of sport is rooted in competition. Clubs have teams and individuals who compete in leagues and championships. The playing of games is organised on a seasonal basis and that seasonal basis is fixed on competition.
It means that — for the most part, teams and clubs try to win. There is nothing wrong with trying to win, of course. And trying to win is where a lot of the fun in sport can be found.
But when it comes down to it, when a match or a trophy is there to be won, trying to win lives in contention with ideals around inclusivity, that is to say ‘Sport for all’.
This is particularly the case as players and competitors move up through the age groups. There is a Darwinian cull and those who are left standing are ordinarily those who are the best.
The evidence of history is that the people who usually run teams or clubs ordinarily do not care where someone comes from and what they look like. The desire to win almost always trumps all. This means that talented migrant players will not just be included, but cherished.
So what happens at the other end of the scale with mass participation in sport?
The greatest access point in our society to sport is through the education system. The universality of education also means that it offers the potential to address issues around integration, as well as class and gender and so on.
But it is not working properly on even a most basic level.
This is made abundantly clear in the just-published ‘Children’s sport participation and physical activity study’, undertaken on an all-island basis by Dublin City University, University of Limerick, University College Cork and University of Ulster.
The study involved some 6,600 students from 115 schools across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland along with school principals and teachers from many of these schools.
Between what they do at school and what they do at home, only 19% of primary and 12% of post-primary school children met the Department of Health and Children basic physical activity recommendations. These proportions have not improved since 2004.
Further, girls were less likely than boys to meet the physical activity recommendations.
All of this is obviously not just the fault of schools — the broader growth of a sedentary lifestyle outside school hours is deeply problematic; only 1% of children spend less than two hours daily sitting viewing TV, videos or playing on the computer.
But what happens in schools is also not good enough. Only 35% of primary pupils and 10% of post-primary pupils received the Department of Education and Skills-recommended minimum minutes of physical education per week.
And despite everything we know about childhood obesity and mental health, since 2004 the time scheduled for physical education has increased only by an average of five minutes per week in post-primary schools.
This is partly related to facilities: 81% of primary principals and 29% of post-primary principals reported not having access to an indoor multi-purpose hall on-site for the purpose of teaching physical education.
Naturally, it is in the poorest schools that PE facilities are ordinarily worst.
Against that, there are schools where the students want for little in this area. We can dress this up anyway we want, but this is another example of the distorting impact of educational privilege.
Indeed, comparing the disparity of infrastructure available in Ireland’s elite schools, as against its poorer ones, offers a vivid insight into just how grotesque the reality of equality of opportunity is in Ireland.
The authors of that ‘Children’s sport participation and physical activity study’ finished what they had to say in a somewhat brutal manner. They wrote:
This recommendation holds the key to the first step towards successful sporting integration. The difficulty is, however, that recommendations on how to increase such participation for children have long been made.
They are set out in report after report and they cohere on a single point — investment in physical exercise in schools.
The key structural change once that is achieved is to create a process which ensures that those who have love to play find a way into the sport of their choice.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD.