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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 21 Mar 2006

Vol. 616 No. 4

National Sports Campus Development Authority Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As I indicated during my last contribution to this debate, it is a pleasure to speak in support of this proposal. I dealt with the generalities of the legislation during my previous contribution, but given the week we have just had in terms of Irish sport, it is worthwhile to reflect on the relevance of sport to the Irish nation. It is often said we are a nation of sports fans, and last week during the Cheltenham racing festival I heard that said as a criticism. People do not seem to understand the psyche of sport and its importance to this country. I am not referring here to selfish, personal preferences but rather to the failure to understand the place of sport in the social fabric of this country and its hugely positive influence.

The emergence of the Celtic tiger was by no means coincidental to the emergence of the Irish soccer team as a competitive international force, which gave us all confidence that we could compete internationally and pit our wits, in athletic terms, against anybody in the world. The supporters, the ordinary people of Ireland, travelled the world, held their heads high and provided an example of good social interaction without any of the security risks associated with certain international sporting events, particularly soccer events. It was a huge boost to the national psyche when we qualified for the European Championship in 1988 and the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990, the United States in 1994 and Japan and Korea in 2002.

The renaissance of the GAA took place in the same period. The organisation which had been a bedrock in our local communities and national community for over 100 years has re-emerged and renewed itself over the past ten or 15 years. It has created a timeless memorial to the position of the association in Irish life and sport as well as in the sporting world itself, way beyond our shores. It has constructed an edifice that will stand up to comparison with any stadium I have visited and will do so for a long time to come. Those two factors over the past 15 years have proved how important sport is to the social fabric of the country.

One only has to consider the sporting events of last week. Not well known outside her own discipline, a young woman from Cork, Derval O'Rourke, took gold in the world indoor athletics championships. It was a marvellous achievement that opens many possibilities at a stage in her life which could not be more timely.

For the second year running, we had huge successes at Cheltenham. The jewels in the crown of champion hurdling, the Queen Mother Chase and the Gold Cup, were won for the second year in a row by Irish horses. The place of the Irish thoroughbred in international racing was reasserted in the most glorious and positive manner, not only by the trainers, the jockeys and the stable staff but also by the supporters who bring a level of enjoyment and positive social interaction to this important event.

On Saturday, it was capped by a marvellous performance from the international rugby side against England at Twickenham. The performance from players, backroom staff and supporters reflected nothing but credit on the country.

It is important that sport is considered not just as a business or a means of grabbing positive headlines at home or abroad, it must be considered holistically for what it can do for us as a nation, its health and social benefits and the general sense of community and positivity it brings. The Bill will give effect to the establishment and construction of a national sports campus. It will provide a magnificent facility for all national governing bodies of sport. On completion of the various phases, it will provide Ireland with an international campus that will stand comparison with most others in the world.

When the original proposal for the national stadium was floated, the national sports campus was an intrinsic part of it. Unfortunately, the campus was overshadowed by the stadium project. The more important element of the project is the sports campus. I am delighted that it is going ahead independently of the stadium. It is the key to the future development of sport in the State. It must, however, be coupled with ongoing investment in local sporting facilities on a community basis. This has been the hallmark of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism for several years and particularly since Deputy O'Donoghue became Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism.

The top echelons of sport, particularly professional sport, are akin to showbusiness; they are professional, they are businesses and they are about entertainment. The sport we want to promote at local level on a community basis with the sports capital grant programme is not showbusiness. It may be entertainment in the broadest sense, but if it is, it is entertainment for a small number of people. However, it is real sport and the essence of sport as it should be. It is the type of sport that will generate the maximum advantage for our communities. I accept a showbusiness element is required. People such as Derval O'Rourke, Paul Carberry, Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan are essential in sports. Although one wonders about sports stars as role models, by and large this country has been lucky. The majority of our domestic and international sports people are excellent role models who will inspire new generations. All sporting organisations have youth programmes on a national basis. The role model will encourage further participation.

The Bill's provisions facilitate and encourage elite athletes in all sports, even the minority ones. I welcome the fact that facilities will be made available to the minority sports. It brings with it the prospect of sport-for-all. Although sport for all will not happen overnight, the National Sports Campus Development Authority Bill is a key stepping stone to facilitating this worthy and realistic goal. The Bill will compliment the high achievers at international level of which we are lucky to have many. It has come about not by pure fluke but by well funded and well organised programmes from national governing bodies, supported financially by various Governments over many years. Sport for all is the goal to which we all aspire. In times to come, the legislation enabling the development of the national sports campus will be seen as the seminal event in the evolution of sport on the island. Hopefully, it will be looked back on gratefully by many participants at local and elite international level. I wish the Minister well with the project and I especially commend him on the highly successful term of office he has had to date.

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill which is important in terms of the development of the sports and recreational industry. I use the latter term advisedly. I concur with the sentiments expressed by my colleague Deputy Glennon on the importance of sport as a medium to enable people to express themselves locally, nationally and internationally. Sport also enables people to develop their disciplinary expertise in playing for the sake of it and not necessarily expecting to win all the time. One should be magnanimous in victory while also being able to accept defeat when it comes. Sporting endeavour is an important part of a human being's development.

I do not want to dwell on the negative aspects of some recent incidents but I believe that if sport is adequately funded and plays a central role, the unsavoury events we decry from time to time will fade into the distance to be replaced by something more positive and people-driven than some other antics we have seen.

The concept involved in this legislation is a good one. Deputy Glennon said that Campus Stadium Ireland overshadowed its contents, which is quite correct. I do not want to go down that route, however. I am glad that we have got to this juncture whereby we now have an opportunity to establish a centre of excellence in which everyone can become involved. Everyone will be able to participate in the venture as well as seeing where they are going and ascertaining the extent to which they can progress. That is critical, especially in the international sphere where we triumph occasionally. One such recent triumph was achieved by Derval O'Rourke, which was an excellent performance. She deserves all our congratulations, as do some of her colleagues who also participated in Moscow and did very well.

I hope the developments envisaged by the Bill will give an opportunity to young athletes to become involved and develop their full potential. In this way, they will recognise the ability of sport and recreational activities generally to portray the country in a different light both here and abroad. No amount of debate here can do other than pay a simple tribute to the importance of those aspects of sport.

The centre of excellence concept is a good one as long as a number of matters are observed, as I presume they will be. For example, there is no sense in having the requisite buildings and other facilities unless we have managers, trainers, dieticians and other experts to enable us to compete internationally. There is no reason we cannot do so. Many other countries as small or smaller than ours have done so repeatedly in the past.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, when Ireland was relatively under-developed, we still had people who excelled in track and field events, including athletics. I will not bore the Minister by going through a list of them but there were a good few Munster people involved and we recognise their endeavours. Sport has been lifted to a new plane in the era of semi-professionalism, which puts greater stress and strain on competing countries. Some people say that these developments are not necessarily good for sport. Deputy Glennon is an expert in rugby who played at international level but I am not sure that semi-professionalism has done much good for that game. If one looks back at some of the rugby matches played in times gone by, well known players from all over the country could still have shown a clean pair of heels to anybody around today, notwithstanding the degree of professionalism that is emerging. In other sports, likewise, there are several similar illustrations.

Sport is a medium for promoting the country's culture and tourism and has tremendous potential in this regard. In the not too distant future the Ryder Cup competition will be held in my constituency. I hope that those involved in all sporting categories will take full advantage of the situation to promote their own sports. Ireland should be promoted as a location where sport is pursued open-handedly with due regard for young amateur participants.

Coverage of major sporting events can be of immense benefit to tourism. One cannot possibly measure the degree of positive advertising that can be gleaned from a major sporting event such as the Ryder Cup. My constituency has a long-established association with the racing industry, which I am sure will play a role in the presentation of various events accompanying the Ryder Cup competition. That will benefit not only County Kildare and its racing industry but also the country as a whole where sporting pursuits are encouraged. Australia, New Zealand and the United States take a keen interest in their own games, so we should not underestimate the degree to which we can promote this country positively through the medium of sports.

Previous speakers referred to the GAA which has lived up to its responsibilities admirably. One may say that because the GAA is active in every parish it is easier for it to do so. Nonetheless, it is active at all levels in virtually every town and village. GAA clubs have provided social facilities as well as sporting expertise and training. The GAA deserves recognition for having provided the wider community with a large volume of social support. In the context of this Bill, due regard must be had for the GAA's work and the even greater contribution it will have to make in future as our population increases.

Our population was low for 150 years for obvious reasons which I will not go into now. The fact remains, however, that the population will increase considerably beyond anything we can anticipate.

In those circumstances, the degree to which sporting organisations can contribute to social inclusion, the promotion of the country's culture and the well-being of individual communities is significant and I hope it will receive due recognition.

Track and field events are lonely sports, as anyone involved will state. In sports such as cross-country running, people train on their own. It is quite boring and requires a great degree of devotion as well as expertise and athletic ability. While the sport's organisation is available and supportive, support is also necessary from the State through the institutions we are discussing. It affords the State an opportunity to encourage and provide facilities for young people to allow them to develop their skills and advance.

When I attempt to ask questions of the Minister on such matters as preparing for the Olympic Games I am usually refused because another organisation has responsibility. There is no reason we cannot compete effectively in the Olympic Games if we have the right training, preparation, promotion, opportunities and selection of the most suitable people. That would not serve to exclude others, as the ability to recognise those with specific talent is critical and is the work of a centre of excellence.

Another role of a centre of excellence is to liaise with organisations throughout the country. It is pointless to have such a centre, and the sport development that goes with it, if it is isolated in Dublin, does not relate to the rest of the country and is not involved in a meaningful and promotional way with all centres of education at all levels, such as universities, third level and second level institutions.

A centre of excellence must be able to identify at the earliest possible stage the sporting potential of young people. One cannot tell someone at 25 or 30 years of age that if he or she had been spotted in time, he or she could have been a great 100 m sprinter. That is of no benefit to anyone. The necessary technique is to identify such people at five, seven or ten years of age and develop them from there. That is what the best people do and I hope it can be done in the course of this development. Like everything else, the concept of the Bill is good and has great potential. Its success depends on what is done within the confines of the proposal. It may be very good and of significant benefit to the country in ways such as those mentioned by previous speakers. However, it will be useless if it is not followed up.

I am sure the Minister knows in each sport it will be necessary to identify how best to promote, facilitate, prepare, train, and ensure the availability of the best coaches. It will also be necessary to ensure that when people want to progress, they are encouraged to do so and are reasonably assessed, by which I do not mean that they are put down, but that they are given a reasonable assessment of their ability so they can progress in the knowledge that they have a reasonable chance against certain competitors. I cannot understand how we can send people into the international arena who have never had a time even remotely close to their competitors. It is disheartening for the people concerned. Time, energy and effort should be put into increasing their speed to enable them to compete well, readily and evenly with their contemporaries. It would be hugely beneficial to their confidence and that of the country and to the development of sport generally.

The Minister's Department covers many positive areas in which people like to be involved. People like to kick a football, play rugby and hurling, swim, get involved in track and field events and participate in sports. It is important we recognise it is also a means of promoting tourism and the image of the country. Deputy Glennon reminded me of Italia '90 and previous European competitions when hordes of Irish supporters travelled all over the world with their faces painted green, white and gold. We became recognised as a nation of good-humoured human beings who could go anywhere, have a few jars, enjoy ourselves and laugh it off.

A peculiar development beset the country recently. We still have a few jars, perhaps more than we should on many occasions. However, we do not seem to have the same ability to laugh at ourselves and deflect the barb when it is thrown, resulting in some unsavoury scenes. I do not want to dwell on that unnecessarily. However, it is a development in our society which requires attention and sport is the best means of deflecting it. The Minister will recognise this is not a criticism of anybody. It is a simple fact of life that as we evolve and become wealthier, we tend to become more self-centred and of the opinion that we are superior. We are not. We are all human and should try to behave as normal, supportive human beings. Anything we do should reflect well on ourselves and our country. If we do not always win, we should be able to state it is only a game and not a life or death issue. The discipline that goes with sport allows us to recognise that and put it to good and positive effect in terms of how the country is viewed abroad.

The concept of the Bill is good. I hope all sporting groups will have an opportunity to develop to the best extent possible. I hope the influence of the centre will spread throughout the country in an inclusive and all-embracing way, as a result of which our athletes will have the support, back-up and recognition they and the country deserve.

Like the previous two speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the National Sports Campus Development Authority Bill 2006. I agree with them that sport can be an all-embracing and powerful force in the community. In a comparatively small country such as Ireland the stock of resources matters less than how that stock is used to maximise efficiency. We will never have the resources that sport enjoys in Britain but last week when our rugby team won in such thrilling circumstances at Twickenham, it showed that quality can often be better than quantity. We cannot always beat our chests but there are events, such as that win, about which we can speak gladly.

Sport is a social event and often provides an escape from the complexities and difficulties of everyday life. When we choose to pursue a sporting activity, be it hurling, rugby, soccer or golf we want it to be memorable and worthwhile. Elite athletes whose sporting ambitions are their livelihoods also want to avail of modern and professional facilities.

Those who follow sport also share a sense of community through their allegiance to teams and sports heroes. This can lead to immense pride in respect of local and county teams, and national fervour and patriotism when there is success on the international stage. There were examples of this last week and not just in Twickenham. The games in Croke Park made an impact on Portumna and people there responded, despite the tragic accident that night at the team's homecoming. It brought a sense of euphoria to an entire area. The same was true of Newtownshandrum last year and the year before, and of clubs such as Nemo Rangers and Salthill last week. Sporting success can lift the country too as Deputy Durkan said.

Sport can also be viewed as a natural regulator in society and a natural enemy of disorder and anti-social behaviour through its ideals of fair play, participation, co-operation, social interaction and respect for the rules. As those who have been involved in promoting community games know, the concept behind them is that people participate and medals are awarded. It has become very competitive but the initial idea was to get people competing rather than to focus on winning.

It is important to foster sport at all levels. I hope that when we are finished with the development of the stadia we are discussing such a facility will be provided for community games. We ran into some trouble recently when facilities were not available. For example, Mosney was out of bounds for a time or was difficult to use. I hope the Minister, who is enthusiastic about community games, will comment on whether we can give them a new centre and area of recognition.

People have become increasingly aware of the value of sport in promoting good health. Personal health nowadays covers physical, social and emotional well-being. Meanwhile we suffer from heart disease, cancer, strokes and obesity, all of which are significantly linked to a lack of activity. A sports strategy taking all these factors into account is needed to unite the Departments of Arts, Sport and Tourism, Health and Children, and Education and Science in a common aim. The national sports campus at Abbotstown has the potential to be such a unifying force.

I was one of the few people from outside Dublin who was disappointed when the previous suggestions for Abbotstown and related projects were attacked. Any person who had a real commitment to sport and was not playing a political angle would have supported the concept. Some speakers mentioned minority sports. My major sporting activity was track cycle racing which is almost non-existent, primarily for lack of a velodrome or indoor racing track. This would have been included in the original Abbotstown concept. I was disappointed because people started to score political points and cite figures such as €1 billion when that was a frightening sum. Much damage was done. The same people would now tell us to grab the chance of hosting the Olympics and so on.

The Government has a major part to play because public investment in sport must match the twin aims of cost-effectiveness and the personal development of individuals and communities. It is easy to keep track of economic success indicators but the benefits for the public good in terms of well-being and social capital are sometimes less tangible and harder to quantify but should be of most concern to the Government. While we may debate these benefits now and again, overall programmes must be built on such positive factors.

Government intervention in sport does not cement the divide between the haves and have-nots but contributes to a situation in which sport is made accessible to all. We need to consider many aspects of that idea. I wrote to the Minister for Finance last year pointing out that it is difficult to get insurance cover to use school or other community-based facilities. I suggested that the State find some method of underwriting these insurance costs nationally. The Minister agreed with the idea but qualified it. We should return to the issue. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism is interested in promoting any idea that will help to promote sport.

Sports funding for this year is close to €250 million. It is a great deal more than the €17 million allocated in 1997, even allowing for the gap in time. The public supports the idea of spending such a sum on sport, and on preventative medicine rather than hospital-based medicine, as far as possible. Everybody in this House should support that idea. The Minister has taken the lead in that regard and is involved in promoting projects across the sporting spectrum. Regardless of anybody's political affiliations or sporting allegiance, he has given it full support at every opportunity. There are many exciting projects under way, such as the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road and major investments in smaller club grounds throughout the country.

We must compliment the GAA which was building and providing facilities before national lottery funding became available 14 or 15 years ago. This is true not just of the Croke Park development but also of hundreds of county and club grounds throughout the country.

The Minister has been able to assist the development or refurbishment of many pitches and facilities. For instance, in my constituency, Cork South Central, many clubs providing facilities for a variety of sports have benefited from such developments. GAA clubs such as Blackrock, Bishopstown, Douglas and Nemo Rangers have undertaken major projects over the past two years or so. I hope my local St. Finbarr's GAA club will be able to do something similar this year. Major change is being forced on it by a realignment of a nearby national road route and I hope the club will be financed for its project.

Another project in my area has grabbed my attention and I strongly support it because it follows the precept of the Minister to get people to share facilities. This is a gymnasium project based at Coláiste Críost Rí in Bishopstown, which is novel because it would become the centre for the Cork indoor bowls association, and indoor bowls is, for the older sector, the fastest growing sport, certainly in the Cork region. This would also be the home base for the Leevale athletic club, the home club of Derval O'Rourke, while the Bishopstown-Wilton badminton club would also be a tenant. The Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, always encourages the sharing of facilities and this project would be a textbook example of the concept. School personnel of the Presentation order and others are behind the project which I hope will be supported.

The Government has spent more than €750 million on sport since 1997, with 18 swimming pool projects completed since 2000, Churchfield in Cork being among them. I had the honour of proposing in Cork City Council that the pool in Douglas be named after a former colleague of mine, a former lord mayor of Cork, the late Gus Healy. I hope that will be one of the pools to be modernised in the coming year.

The national campus at Abbotstown will be the apex of this development in modernising Irish sports infrastructure and will provide top-class facilities to cater for both the elite and community sports people to international standards. Deputy Durkan mentioned how people improve all the time, but we have examples of late starters, probably none better known than the captain of our hurling team last year, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, who started out at quite an older age for hurling. One is supposed to be born with a hurley because otherwise one cannot play the game, as most Kerry people discover. Seán Óg was a late starter in that regard but it shows that if encouraged, people can develop their talents and do not have to start at the age of five, six or seven.

In 2004 the Government decided to move forward with the Abbotstown development after consultation with the major governing bodies in sport and other interested groups. Phase one of a five-year plan will provide a national field sports training centre, a national indoor training centre and sports science, medical and athletic accommodation facilities following on from the development of the national aquatic centre as part of the Abbotstown project. Training requirements for up to 30 national governing bodies will be met by the development at Abbotstown.

This is the concept we want which is why I am so disappointed we had difficulties in the past. Major or minor, every sporting activity should be encouraged and have facilities. This is an exciting time for sport. The national sports campus will aid dedicated athletes such as Derval O'Rourke from Douglas, our most recent world champion, to continue to prosper on the national and world stage. Deputy Durkan mentioned staging the Olympics and clearly that is what we should aim at, but I also emphasise the community games concept. Reports after the Sydney and Athens Olympic Games indicated that the system of support for athletes in Ireland fell far short of what would be expected internationally, and the national campus will go a long way towards addressing that. We now have a chance to develop modern and up-to-date facilities which will be among the best in the world.

To achieve our goals of participation, performance and excellence we need a network of facilities at local and national level to be built around one centre, the national sports campus. The estimated cost of the Abbotstown project is €119 million. It will have its detractors, as previous efforts had. Some people might say the money would be better spent on health but they might be the same people to bemoan our lack of success on the Olympics or World Cup stages. It is incredible that the same people will have such split views.

As the Minister noted, the 2012 Olympic Games in London will present opportunities for Ireland to market itself as a centre for elite athletic excellence. The timeframe for the campus at Abbotstown appears to fit in too. If we are serious about the development of sport in this country we must invest, and the investment will reap major dividends in terms of elite success and community involvement if it is planned properly and done right. With the national sports campus at Abbotstown, Ireland is going for gold in a big way. We will finally be able to compete in the fast lane of world sport. I wish the Minister well in speeding up the plans as he negotiates his way down the winning straight. He has done some great training along the way.

I also pay tribute to the Opposition. I do not know if Deputy Deenihan is the formal Opposition spokesperson on sporting activities but when I mentioned detractors and critics of the original concept, one of the real exceptions was Deputy Deenihan, a man who gave us rough going now and then — Cork being a smaller, modest county — when he hammered us a few times. However, he always supported the Minister in his genuine efforts to promote sporting activity. I come from a sports-mad county. If this Bill had been discussed this time last year, we might have felt we should have had a monopoly view on it because we had security guards to mind all the silver trophies at various functions. We may have lost our way a little at the outset of this year but I hope we will recover.

Deputy Durkan mentioned Derval O'Rourke and noted that many of her co-athletes are doing very well and are just a few seconds from the centre of the rostrum. We also want to remember the community games, the Special Olympics and those with special needs. Sport is great at joining people and lifting their spirits. To revel in the success, we do not all need to participate, but those who take part in sport will forever talk of the friends they made, the enjoyment they got from it no matter how tough the training or how mad one might have seemed to be. When one has done 5,000 or 6,000 miles of training on a bike, one imagines one might be mad or wonders if one is doing the right thing. However, when we look back at the end of the day, all of us will have enjoyed our time in sport. We must look forward now, and the Minister is doing that by putting the plans in place. With the passing of the Bill which I hope will have support from all, we will move on to a very successful international stage.

Debate adjourned.