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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Vol. 618 No. 4

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

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

The last day I spoke to the Bill I noted that when people talked about the development at Abbotstown, they referred to it as a national development. It has sometimes been said the facility has been developed at the expense of other local facilities. That is anything but the truth. The level of expenditure by the Government, in particular by the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, on local sports facilities, should be acknowledged. In the period 1998 to 2004 more than 4,500 local projects were funded, in particular under the national programme for the provision of swimming pools. There is a new swimming pool under construction in the Clondalkin area, while all local GAA and soccer clubs have benefited. Gone are the days when children used to change at the side of the field.

One problem is that some clubs are very small and fragmented. In many cases South Dublin County Council has taken the lead role in bringing together a number of local clubs to provide combined facilities funded under the sports capital programme. That is a model which needs to be rolled out in other areas because we have many small soccer and athletics clubs which do not have a membership of sufficient size to justify owning their own facilities. South Dublin County Council has delivered such facilities in taking the lead role.

People look at the Government's commitment to sport and agree, for example, that it has provided funding for the GAA for the development of Croke Park, the National Aquatic Centre and the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road. However, these are major projects for elite athletes and sports persons.

The Government is committed to providing sporting facilities for all people, at all levels, throughout our community. National facilities are absolutely essential. Ideally, they will used by the elite sports stars whom we, as a nation of sports lovers, admire. Such stars are the catalyst which encourages people to take up sports. If one looks at the history of sport here, any time Ireland has performed well abroad at a major international event, whether it be winning medals in boxing, performing well in the World Cup or even when a county wins the All Ireland, locally the knock-on effect is an enormous take-up of that sport by children. A national stadium can be the catalyst that encourages people to participate in sport.

Recently I attended a conference dealing with childhood obesity. It was worrying to note that obesity levels in children here are not in line with the European average but are closer to the average in the United States of America. That is a worrying trend but developments like that proposed at Abbotstown can play an important role in this regard. We should not think of the development as being solely for the use of elite athletes. While it is intended as a facility for elite athletes, it will also act as an inspiration for young people entering a career in sport and will benefit the health of the nation.

Obviously, we all take pride in our elite athletes and sports people when they take part in international competition and that is something we want to promote and foster. Every time we participate in the Olympic Games, the post-mortem afterwards centres on what more we could and should do for our athletes. The development at Abbotstown will address that to some extent.

The Community Games is one of the leading organisations promoting sport. It also promotes community involvement, active citizenship and participation in sporting activity, not just for the sake of winning. For years, many of its national events have been staged in Santry and Mosney. I hope the facilities developed in Abbotstown will be made available to the Community Games organisation. It is a large organisation that actively encourages young people to engage in sporting activity at all levels. For people in many areas that lack sporting organisations and facilities, the Community Games is their introduction to sport. I will not name all the famous athletes who have come through the ranks of the Community Games and gone on to win international recognition but I hope the organisation will be provided with the opportunity to avail of the facilities at the Abbotstown complex. The facilities at Mosney are no longer of the highest standard and an organisation like the Community Games should be given the opportunity to organise events at Abbotstown.

I take issue with a point raised by Deputy Joe Higgins with regard to the management of the new board. He argued that the management should be made up of nominees from various sporting organisations rather than be appointed by the Minister. I disagree. If the former was the case, membership of the board would become a popularity contest and a power struggle between the bigger sporting organisations. The section in the legislation that provides for the Minister to appoint the chairman and 12 people to the committee will ensure that we have the correct mix of management expertise and sporting enthusiasm on the board, which is critically important. If we did not have that type of mix, Abbotstown would not develop to its full potential.

Phase one, which is well planned at this stage, comprises the national field sports training centre, catering for rugby, Gaelic games, soccer and hockey as well as an indoor training centre which will provide facilities for more than 30 governing bodies of sport, including basketball, badminton, boxing, judo, table tennis and so forth. Many of the latter sporting organisations have not, to date, had adequate facilities to enable them to participate at the highest level or attract international competitions here. The development at Abbotstown will assist them greatly in this regard. I do not wish to go into details on the lay-out of the centre, but the fact there is a national training centre as well as a sports hall that can house approximately 1,500 people, will allow many sporting organisations to participate at international level and entice international athletes here.

On the subject of enticing and encouraging participation and bearing in mind the Olympic Games of 2012 in London, I would like to see this development well under way by then. It would be a unique opportunity for a small country like Ireland, in the run up to those games, to have many international sports people coming here, participating in sport. It is participation in sport at that level that acts as a catalyst for young people entering into sport. The date 2012 needs to be firmly set in everyone's mind because that year will provide an international opportunity that we, as a small nation, might not see again. It will provide an opportunity to attract to this country, athletes of the calibre that Ireland would not normally see, in a range of disciplines. I hope everything will be done to have the authority established and the facility up and running in a successfully by then. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which will provide for the establishment of the national sports campus development authority on a statutory basis.

The primary functions of the authority will be to develop a sports campus on the Abbotstown site, to furnish, equip, manage, operate and maintain it as well as to encourage and promote its use by professional and amateur sports people and members of the public. The campus will provide a central building, which will include living accommodation, gymnasia, fitness training, medical and recovery areas. It will also provide training areas for rugby, soccer, Gaelic games and hockey field games. Each of the three areas will have a range of natural turf and synthetic pitches, some floodlit, which will allow teams to train in secure, private locations. The plan also envisages a national indoor training centre and a sports hall that will host more than 30 indoor sports, with a capacity for 1,000 spectators.

The range of facilities to be provided at Abbotstown, are certainly impressive but they are not before time. Ireland lags behind the rest of the first world in terms of the facilities it provides for its professional athletes and its sporting citizens in general. As mentioned by Deputy Deenihan, Ireland lags far behind countries like the United States of America, England, Australian, New Zealand and even former communist countries in central and Eastern Europe in terms of its sports facilities. Nonetheless, belated though plans for Abbotstown are, they are very welcome. I hope the new authority will discharge its duties efficiently and effectively and that the new facilities will be open to the public and to professional athletes as soon as possible.

While in many respects it makes a great deal of sense to locate a centre such as Abbotstown in Dublin, as a rural Deputy, I must stress the need not to neglect the rest of the country. In small towns and villages throughout Ireland, sporting facilities are often lacking. Were it not for the sustained efforts of the GAA through the years, it is hard to imagine what sports outlets young people would have in rural Ireland. However, while hurling and Gaelic football are part of the fabric of the nation, they are not sports that every young person can participate in, or wishes to participate in. Therefore, the State has a responsibility to provide other options. In addition, the climate here means that indoor facilities are a must.

I have spoken before about the potential of facilities which lie idle all over Ireland. I refer to parish halls which remain locked most of the time owing to high insurance costs and the difficulty of finding volunteers to organise and supervise activities. I have mentioned my view that young people often turn to drink because of boredom. Going to the pub with their friends is the only social outlet available to them. In this context, it is high time we examined the underutilised resource parish halls provide. These buildings are generally large enough to host a range of activities such as badminton, indoor soccer, dancing classes, table tennis, volleyball and softball. However, high insurance costs mean they are not open to the people of the parishes most of the time. When they are, supervision is required. However, as we are all aware, the level of participation in voluntary work is declining. The demands of a strong economy put pressure on families to have both parents in the workforce and people simply do not have the time to engage in voluntary activity in their communities. Paying people from within local communities to provide supervision would go a long way towards addressing this problem. The bottom line is that if we are serious about providing our young people with alternatives to drink, drugs and boy-racing, we must put our money where our mouth is and come up with imaginative ways to tap into the resources available within our communities.

In respect of other community facilities such as all-weather pitches, I have seen how national lottery and local authority grants can make a big difference. However, such grants generally only meet part of the cost and the school or community in question must fundraise to attempt to meet outstanding costs. In this day and age, this should not be the case. I remember attending a function with the Minister in Cahir, County Tipperary last year, where the local community and school got together to open a wonderful facility. The Minister will agree that a community in a wealthy economy should not have to engage in the major effort and lobbying that went into securing funding for the project in question. Sports facilities such not be treated as a luxury in a wealthy First World country such as Ireland but should be seen as a normal part of life.

The grants provided for sports facilities in communities such as all-weather pitches or floodlit walkways around pitches should be increased to ensure they meet most of the costs involved. Providing floodlit walkways is an excellent way to encourage people to walk around pitches instead of on roads which can be extremely busy. Several accidents have happened. There is proof that facilities such as walkways are of significant benefit to many, particularly in rural areas. The Government should be amenable to this and consider developing them.

While local communities must be equipped with sports facilities, so too must our schools. Fine Gael recently surveyed 1,400 primary schools in respect of their sports facilities. The study revealed that PE was not taught in our schools. According to the Irish Heart Foundation, that is the reason one in five children in the five to 12 age group is overweight or obese. We do not have sufficient facilities available in our schools, a point that has been consistently highlighted. Only 23% of primary schools have a sports hall and for most of the year Irish weather is unsuitable for taking children outside. It is impossible for teachers to implement a physical education programme without facilities. Of the schools which had a sports hall only a small percentage had a hall of more than 170 sq m, the size of two badminton courts. The simple fact is that schools are heavily reliant on national lottery grants and fundraising. However, I reiterate that sports facilities such not be viewed as a luxury in a wealthy country such as Ireland. They are a necessity.

I welcome the Bill. I hope the National Sports Campus Authority will be successful and fulfil all of its obligations in an efficient and effective manner and that the facilities at Abbotstown give our athletes the opportunity to compete at the highest level worldwide. Moreover, I hope it encourages Irish people of all ages to embrace sport. I urge the Minister to examine the micro-level of small communities, as well as the gaps in the provision of sports facilities and consider how they can be addressed. Will he examine the issue of paid supervisors in the small community halls which lie idle?

In my constituency a parish community has raised substantial funds. Those involved made several applications to the Minister's Department for national lottery funding but were turned down on every occasion. They changed their application to meet the Minister's guidelines. Will he consider their current application in view of what I have stated and not let down rural communities which are growing and prospering? They need these facilities. I hope the Minister will listen to what I have stated.

I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the introduction of the Bill which will have a swift and easy passage through the Dáil because few could disagree with it. As the Minister outlined, it provides the opportunity to provide a blueprint for great development in all areas of sport, not only physical facilities, but also, importantly, the sciences behind sport.

When I was a member of the Oireachtas committee with responsibility for arts, sport and tourism, we reviewed what had happened on the road to Beijing and — I cannot remember where the last Olympic Games were held——

I thank the Minister. We considered where we would be in terms of the games in London onwards. We must examine and prepare. A particularly good aspect of what is proposed under the national sports campus development plans is the recognition that stars and athletes are not born overnight and that medals must be planned for. Facilities must be provided. This is one way to ensure we will have a good turnout at future Olympic Games.

Sport is not only about elite performance and performers. Every one of us benefits from it. As a nation, we are internationally recognised for being tremendous supporters. Everybody loves to see the Irish playing because the supporters are well known for getting behind the team. It is a pity we will not be at the World Cup. We will probably back the Poles and give them a great sense of how the Irish nation supports its teams and our enthusiasm for sport.

Sport is also a great way to divide people. A great example is the recent rugby match between Munster and Leinster. I had difficulties regarding where I am from and grew up and where I now reside and make my living. Nonetheless, if one is born in Munster, one remains a Munster supporter. It is a great indicator of how sport captivates the imagination of the country. We are a naturally enthusiastic nation when it comes to sport and should do whatever we can to develop sports facilities.

The strategic goals of the Irish Sports Council are built around the concepts of participation, performance and excellence. While the excellence factor may be for the elite performers, the Irish Sports Council is very keen to get the rest of us participating, getting out and using facilities. The Minister has mentioned how much money has been invested in the sports infrastructure since 1997. It is quite remarkable, and we can see the results. Everybody comments on the good facilities, be they swimming pools or whatever now more available in our own local communities.

It is good to have a proper blueprint for how these sporting facilities are to be developed. With that in mind, this National Sports Campus Development Authority Bill 2006 is a beginning. Previous speakers indicated what will be provided in it. I have one note of concern. In Limerick we have a good facility for sporting excellence, which people can travel to even from abroad for services available there. I wonder how that facility will fit in with the plan. I hope the Limerick facility will not become second best to the Abbotstown facilities. That is my only concern.

As we develop the site and excellent proposed facilities, we must be cautious. The experience with the National Aquatic Centre will have sobered us somewhat in how we deal with vast sums of public money being spent. I hope the lessons we have learned from that will not be forgotten. It is a cause of concern when we are about to embark on a major project, with vast amounts of public money about to be invested, though some of it will be in partnership. We must be careful with regard to how the money is spent and the manner in which we get the best value for taxpayers' money.

It is an enormous site, at 500 acres, in north County Dublin. We should look at how that will be developed. The facility will be on 500 acres of very valuable land. I hope we think of putting some kind of housing or infrastructure there to maximise the potential.

Previous speakers mentioned opportunities provided with regard to the Olympic Games being held in London. I echo this, as it is an enormous opportunity for us. It is good that we will have proper sporting infrastructure in place so that we can maximise those opportunities for the country. When it was announced last year that London would be the venue for the 2012 Olympics, most people here were delighted because it represents such an enormous opportunity. It gives us an opportunity to invest money into different services. In my own area there are great facilities for yachting and water sports. We envisage opportunities in Dún Laoghaire where we can provide facilities for some of the people who will be training. These facilities will be adjacent to the venue for the games. The opportunities are quite enormous.

Deputies referred to the report of the national task force on obesity. We should be careful on this issue, which relates back to our high incidence of diabetes nationally. One way, and possibly the best way, to combat this is to get people more fit. The provision of a good network of sporting facilities is a simple way of ensuring that people get involved in sports, be it on a competitive and professional level or at a purely social and recreational level.

The advantages of being involved in sport are well known. Apart from anything else, it gives people a great sense of identity, whether it is an allegiance to a county or a club. That can be a character-building experience for people. The Minister is to be commended on what he is planning to bring in under the terms of the Bill. I look forward to one day visiting the good sporting facilities we will have and enjoying the recreational amenities that will come with it.

I welcome this Bill. The establishment of a national sports campus authority is a good idea. Most of what I had planned to say has been said already, but there are a number of issues I would like to flesh out with the Minister. The authority will oversee, plan and develop a sports campus at Abbotstown. I remember Abbotstown being a leader in a field when the State veterinary laboratory was there many years ago. Many people from the farming community around the country would remember Abbotstown with great affection over the years.

As every other speaker in this debate has stated, sport contributes to the well-being of millions of people, be they participants or spectators, in its varying aspects. Sport has something for everybody. As every year goes, we in Ireland are getting more hungry for sport. This is whether we are involved with it or debating it, and even includes people who were never of the sporting kind. We have wall to wall analysis of matches, and it must drive the small minority of people who have no time for televised sports around the bend for so much sport to be on television. The reason for this is that an appetite rightly exists for the sport.

We will start at the beginning. Young people starting out have myriad subjects they must master in their formative years. These include a formal school education, with many young people doing their best coming up to their exams as we speak. The hard grind of formal education is very important. There is also the aspect of self development, which is so important to every human being. There are personal matters, such as accepting responsibility for their own actions, developing interpersonal relationships and socialising.

A large part of young people's training for life is the participation in sport, or being fit in one way or another. This does not have to be participation in a competitive sport. Many people find a niche in non-competitive sports, others like team sports and others prefer lonely individual sports such as marathon running. It relates to what people want to do.

With regard to the budget for sport, there is a good return for every euro spent on two areas of Irish life. These are the provision of good sports facilities for young people and youth work activities. Putting these together, for every euro spent on these as a nation and economy, we reap rich rewards in the end. There is no doubt that there is a direct correlation between the amount of money spent, the manner in which youth work programmes are organised and the way that sporting activities are organised and integrated.

This is not just related to top class men and women in sports. The best way to combat crime is to provide huge resources in terms of money, manpower and the necessary professionalism. I do not represent a city constituency but towns like Ballinasloe, Tuam and Loughrea. I have always found that crime is lower in a community that is well organised and where there is a good spirit. This can be achieved by local sports facilities, whether GAA, soccer or rugby, and good recreational facilities where young people can congregate in a non-drinking environment. I will come to other aspects of a national and international nature but the underlying principle should be for every half parish in Ireland to get a slice of the cake. As the Minister knows, many people have asked whether Abbotstown is in danger of becoming, for whatever reason, the "favourite son". Will money be pumped into it at the expense of smaller towns? I hope the Government will get the balance right. What is proposed in Abbotstown is right for Ireland at this stage but I hope there will be value for money. Small local communities must also be looked after.

I have heard the Minister speak on a number of occasions in the House and at various openings around the country, to which he is entitled, as would any Minister. He should give himself a pat on the back for the investment the Government has made in sport. We now have the resources to do things we could not even dream of ten years ago. I hope if we are around in ten years' time the position will be the same so we must use the money wisely and get value for what we spend. Some of the projects we have initiated over the years have not come up trumps on that score.

This Bill will create the environment for a new type of professionalism. The Minister said in his introduction to the Bill that sports funding for 2006 would amount to €243 million. That is a great deal of money, but allowing for our increased resources in the form of the tax take it may not be any greater than five or ten years ago. I do not have the figures but they tend to grow accordingly.

The Irish Sports Council received €40.9 million. I saw the Irish Sports Council at the Committee of Public Accounts and am very impressed with what it does. Given what happened in Athens, however, and notwithstanding our athletes put up as good a show as they possibly could, we will have to do better at the next Olympic Games, and even more so at the 2012 games.

It is hugely important for the Irish Sports Council to have funds to allocate to athletes for training. We were not able to do that ten, 12 or 20 years ago because we did not have the money and had other priorities, whichever Government was in power. The countries which had resources at the time and decided sport should be a priority, have done very well as a result. That is why the USA and the UK, New Zealand and Australia have done well. Even relatively poor countries like Russia did extraordinarily well and its achievements at the Olympic Games have been nothing short of astounding.

In that context a country gets what it pays for. We are a small country with a small pool of athletes but in the past ten or 12 years we have had some astonishing victories on the world stage, though they have not happened very often. It is significant that the achievements of Ronnie Delaney, whom I saw on television the other night, in winning the gold medal in the mile race, has not been emulated since 1956. We have gone close on a number of occasions and of course there was Sonia O'Sullivan, among others. Our cyclists were outstanding but sports people like that do not emerge very often. The Irish Sports Council must foster the talent, which undoubtedly exists, from a much earlier age so that more people rise to the surface at both national and international level. If the raw material exists, as I am led to believe it does, the Irish Sports Council can give €3,000 or €6,000 out of its €41 million to an athlete to give up everything to train, though that is not a huge contribution on the part of the State. We will have to make up our minds whether we want to reach the top. There will always be one or two exceptional athletes such as we have had over the years but we must aspire to having a crop of athletes reaching a high standard, if not gold medal standard.

I hope the national sports campus development authority being established by this Bill will help to identify raw talent. I hope that nothing is spared in terms of finance and manpower to nurture that talent to success for Ireland. There are many ways to sell Ireland and one is on a podium. When an athlete receives his or her gold medal every television station in the world will carry it and the tricolour will be raised. No matter who the viewers are they will always associate a country in those circumstances with excellence.

A number of Deputies mentioned that the success of London in being awarded the Olympic Games in 2012 will work wonders for us. If our facilities are good enough, which I hope they will be by that time after six further years of investment in facilities, I envisage many national teams coming to Ireland, maybe a year before the games proper, to train. Many teams will use them immediately prior to the games, which will attract television coverage. It is the next best thing to Ireland having the Olympic Games. It is a huge job to run an Olympic Games and any big city that has done so has been put to the pin of its collar to make a success of it. I am sure the Minister's Department and the Olympic Council of Ireland are preparing for it already. Six years is a very short time in which to plan an Olympic Games.

Debate adjourned.