Sports Policy

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, for her attendance. To declare an interest, I am president of the Youth and Sports Committee of the Council of Europe and I ask why a country so interested in sport has not signed up to the Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport, EPAS. People regularly argue that we are losing too much control on issues of importance to the EU. Membership of EPAS, because of its Council of Europe mantle, affords us the opportunity to enhance our influence and express our views as a country on sport.

The existence of an intergovernmental body such as the EPAS ensures states retain the initiative on issues they do not want to entrust to a supranational body such as the European Commission while retaining the strength of numbers on sporting issues that need to be addressed. The Lisbon treaty demands that agencies work together. As a Council of Europe member, I see the input that we as nationally elected politicians have. To leave all decisions to the European Commission does not always serve our national uniqueness. I equate joining the EPAS with enhancing Ireland's power as a country, not the hand of Europe.

The majority of Senators in the House have not heard of the EPAS, aside from the fact of my being on the Council of Europe, or the important work in which it engages on behalf of its 33 member countries. That is why I wish to inform the House in this matter. The EPAS covers the following essential policy aspects of sport: maintaining law and order, promoting public health, and the educational and social benefits of sport. Each of these is especially relevant to the sporting environment in Ireland today. The value of sport is sometimes underestimated. Whether it is the GAA or chess, each of these activities provide people with outlets that improve society as a whole.

If we take law and order, for instance, thankfully Irish sport in general does not have many problems when it comes to upholding law and order at sports events. I have been asked by the Hungarian committee chairperson to give some indications as to how we manage to have our sporting endeavours so peaceful and family orientated. The EPAS, in any event, will be able to aid sports bodies in this country on different approaches and campaigns that can be run to ensure this does not become an issue. While Ireland has a good record, we have seen in recent weeks and months that a minority of so-called fans can cause trouble. I am referring in particular to the incidents that took place at the end of both FAI league games and at Gaelic football matches in the course of last season. Thankfully, such incidents are relatively rare but we must ensure we take sharp action to stamp out such occurrences before they take hold. This is something which the EPAS has assisted other member countries to do.

Ireland's voice at an international level will also be improved. The EPAS is partnered with the likes of UEFA and other European sports bodies. Having a voice at the table when policies and regulations are being discussed for sport on a European basis cannot hurt.

Report after report shows that Irish people are becoming less healthy. The boom period led many to forget about the importance of exercise. Obesity, as the Minister of State knows, will be on the rise at a rate that is quite scary, not just among the young but right across the age spectrum. If this trend is not halted and reversed, we shall see an enormous strain being put on our health service in the years to come. Having examined the activities closely, it prides itself on its health promotion work. The campaigns run by the EPAS highlight different ways of improving health through sport. As these campaigns are on a European-wide basis, the information provided presents many different perspectives on approaches to sport and health. Again, this illustrates the positive impact that membership of the EPAS can afford Ireland, not only in sport but as a country.

Through my Council of Europe work, I have been fortunate to be party to some very early but interesting work that is being done in dealing with corruption in sport. The scale and widespread nature of this, from the evidence I have seen to date, has shocked me greatly and probably has forever changed the way in which I will view sport. This is clearly taking place across Europe, and I have no doubt that it is, unfortunately, present within Irish sporting circles as well, with very high levels of gambling on the outcomes of sports fixtures, using exchange betting and other activities. The spotlight is not being focused on this criminal activity but that is about to change.

The media and sports bodies in Europe are beginning to pay attention to the problem which threatens the very enjoyment and existence of sport for us all. To eliminate this growing cancer in sport, it is essential that Ireland is at the centre of future investigations and new regulations. Signing up to the EPAS presents us with an ideal opportunity to uphold fair play and sportsmanship, which are key values in sport that must be protected.

The EPAS is regularly consulted and engaged in the awarding of major sports events. Being part of a lobby that numbers 33 countries and which is constantly growing would strengthen our chances of securing some of these events in Ireland. Every week in this House we discuss ways of generating employment and general economic growth. We cannot afford to miss out on the revenue that would be created from these events through tourism and so on. In this context membership of the EPAS has relevance for the social development of Ireland, quite apart from the sporting benefits. As far as I know, the economic implications for this country would be minimal.

I thank Senator Keaveney for raising this matter and for the opportunity to address the issues involved on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Deputy Mary Hanafin.

Ireland is a founding member of the Council of Europe and the principles of sports policy defined in the Irish Sports Council Act 1999 are based on the Council of Europe's European Sports Charter. Our national anti-doping programme, which is administered by the Irish Sports Council, was established based on the elements of the Council of Europe's Anti-Doping Convention.

As the Senator is aware, sport no longer forms part of the Council of Europe's centrally budgeted activities following the Council's proposal in 2006 to transfer a number of activities, including sport, to partial agreements as a means of finding budgetary savings. This led to the Committee for the Development of Sport being discontinued and the establishment of the Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport, EPAS, in 2007. The growth of the EU and its increasing engagement with sports issues arising from the specific competence for sport under the Lisbon treaty has also overtaken to some extent the Council of Europe's role in this area. That said, the Council of Europe continues to play an important role in the anti-doping area and currently acts as a forum for a co-ordinated European approach in relation to doping issues, particularly in relation to the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA.

Ireland ratified the Council of Europe Anti-Doping Convention in 2003. The convention has been effective in harmonising anti-doping policies and practices and in raising the standard of the anti-doping programmes of its 50 signatory governments. The convention provided a framework for the global UNESCO anti-doping convention which Ireland ratified in 2008.

Article 165 of the Lisbon treaty provides the European Union with a formal competence on sport which will formalise the co-operation and co-ordination between member states. The European Commission has indicated its intention to adopt a new communication setting out its suggested plans and priorities for European Union action to promote European sporting issues. The competence allows for better promotion of sport in other EU policy areas and programmes such as health and education.

In recognition of the growing role of sport within the European Union, in September this year the European Council changed the name of the council in charge of education, youth and culture. Officially it is now called the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council. Sport was discussed for the first time at the council meeting in Brussels in May this year and the next sport council will take place next week in Brussels. I understand that the EPAS is stepping up its co-operation with the European Union and the sports movement through joint projects.

It is recognised that the Council of Europe has played an important role in Irish and European sport policy. As sport no longer forms part of the Council of Europe's centrally budgeted activities, Ireland is not a member of the Council's EPAS at present. The Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport does follow EPAS events and programmes for continued consideration in the context of Irish sport policy. In view of the exceptional economic constraints at present and the need to prioritise developments in relation to the roll-out of the EU sports provisions established by the Lisbon treaty, the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport has insufficient resources to expand involvement to direct participation in the EPAS at present.

I thank the Minister of State for her answer. I am very disappointed with it, however, because as regards the Council of Europe working with WADA, I have been asked to look at the Council's potential to deal with the organised crime issue. We are talking about putting together an international agency such as WADA under the EPAS to deal with organised crime. Ireland is putting itself very much on the fringe of activity that is very central to matters that are very important to us. I ask that the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport comes back to me with the actual amount involved. We are not talking about a great deal of money. In fact, it is tiny.