Budget cuts will raise another hurdle to Irish sporting success

Never mind the Republic of Ireland’s loss in Cologne, or Munster’s woeful experience in Edinburgh, Irish sport’s most damaging defeat is about to be recorded today, and in Leinster House, of all places.

If the rumour mill is accurate, the industry will have felt the Government’s fiscal scalpel yet again in Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s latest budget and few if any corners of the sector will be immune from cuts.

If true, it will be a devastating hit for a sector already savaged by squeezing of the public purse. Under the auspices of the Federation of Irish Sport (FIS), a plan was drawn up asking for more rather than less funds with a bump of €4.5m sought squarely for the creation of jobs to drive participation levels.

Half the money awarded would filter back into the public coffers via taxation and the roles created would become self-sufficient within a matter of years, thus providing more badly-needed income.

A brave step in such austere times but Liam Harbison, chief executive of Paralympics Ireland and an FIS board member, insisted they could have been even bolder given the role which sport plays in modern society.

“Sport is not just a little add-on, a toy, it’s got to be something you embrace and value,” he told the Irish Examiner recently. “Sport has the potential to crystallise and support the needs of health, education, mental health, well-being, so much in society.”

The Government clearly doesn’t agree. The budget for the sector has shrunk from close to €60m in 2008 to €43m in 2012 and another €3m or so could disappear from that dwindling figure if the most pessimistic of forecasts proves accurate today.

To put that into perspective: that €40m would have to service the needs of 93 organisations, whether National Governing Bodies (NGBs) or Local Sports Partnerships — high performance athletes and participation programmes.

For an organisation like Paralympics Ireland, any loss of income would be a travesty given its successes in recent Games and devotion to matching world-class performance level in more mundane surroundings of its offices.

The NGB has completely revamped its governance structures and intends chasing blue-chip corporate entities similar to Allianz, which last year agreed to extend a partnership that delivered mutual benefits at London 2012.

Paralympics Ireland was dependent on the Government for 95% of its cash for the Beijing 2008 cycle. It has whittled that percentage down to 50% now as it seeks the roughly €2m it needs to operate annually.

The fear is that success on the open market could actually work against such organisations, not that there is some bottomless pool of private companies waiting to write blank cheques in such straitened times.

“The sponsorship market in Ireland isn’t huge,” says Harbison. “The big three [GAA, FAI and IRFU] do relatively well commercially but even they have their own financial commitments. I wouldn’t deprive them of that. They drive their commercial revenues very effectively but it does leave little else for the other sports.”

Which brings us back to the shrinking budgets compounded by the stubborn adherence to dole out the monies on an annualised basis.

Other countries see the need for sport to work in at least four-year cycles — Paralympics Ireland draws some funding from Sport Northern Ireland in such a manner — but the system here only adds to barriers to success.

NGBs with sights set firmly on the Rio Games in 2016 have already reconnoitred bases in Brazil and signed contracts for essential products and services but the reality is they have effectively paid with promissory notes.

It is another example of Ireland’s hypocritical relationship with sport, always ready to celebrate or criticise but unwilling to establish or fund structures required to reach our potential.

“As a nation we really want to ask ourselves what we want from sport,” said Harbison. “What is the purpose of sport? When I went to St Helen’s Primary School in Portmarnock at the age of four I was sport mad.

“PE was the teacher rolling out a couple of mats and you did a couple of tumbles for half an hour every week. Bullshit. My son is in second class and his PE is two half-hours a week in a small room. In 31 years nothing has changed.”

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