Is cúis mhór áthais dom a bheith anseo i bhur measc inniu sa bhliain stairúil seo agus bhur gcomharsana bheál dorais an Dáil ag ceiliúradh chéad bhliain ar an bhfód. Mar uachtarán Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, agus ar son an chumainn ar fad - ár mbaill san aireamh - tá ard meas againn ar institiúidí an Stáit agus an ról atá ag an Seanad i dTithe an Oireachtais.
Gabhaim buíochas as an gcuireadh a bheith anseo inniu. It was with great delight that I accepted the kind invitation from an Seanadóir Denis O'Donovan to come and address the Seanad today, representing the wider GAA family and everything we purport to stand for. During this all-important decade of commemorations, some more straightforward than others to celebrate, it is worth taking account of the standing of our political institutions and of the part democracy plays at the heart of Irish civic life. While we are avowedly non-party political, there is, and has always been, crossover between the activities of the GAA and those elected to represent the people in national and local politics. It will always be thus. Countless figures have straddled both constituencies, many with national profiles, but one common goal we share is that we both strive to contribute positively to Irish society. Today I hope to touch upon some of the ways in which we set out to do that by outlining many of the activities that underpin our reach into Irish communities, many of them away from the traditional core activities on which an Cumann Lúthchleas Gael was built.
I should set out by expressing our gratitude to the State for the support we receive annually through the auspices of Sport Ireland. The GAA spends €10 million annually on the area of coaching and games development. This figure includes an invaluable contribution of more than €2.4 million from Sport Ireland which allows us to employ more than 300 coaches and games promotions officers who work with young people throughout the country. While we would like to think we go some way towards repaying this in myriad different ways, it is not something we take for granted and the funding is put to good use exclusively in the area of coaching and games development. Additionally, our wide network of facilities spread right across the island has received the support of the sports capital project for many years at every level of the GAA, but most crucially at local level where our 1,500 clubs are justifiably proud of their facilities which, in many instances, serve whole communities.
It is also important to acknowledge and express our appreciation for funding which we receive from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Justice and Equality, the HSE, and the National Office for Suicide Prevention. I am pleased to acknowledge that sports capital funding levels have increased after some of the challenges of the past decade. The establishment of a fund for larger capital projects at county and provincial level this year will be put to good use, not just by us but by all sporting bodies.
As I will allude to later, the positive impact of involvement in sport underlines the value of this State support at a time when we are experiencing profound social change in this country. Another source of support that may not be widely known is that which has been provided to our flourishing international network by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for many years. The support and co-operation of the Department in that growth process should be lauded. It has led to the State and the GAA working together on a number of overseas initiatives as Gaelic games have become one of the most powerful expressions of Irish identity for those outside Ireland. I will elaborate on that later.
One of the most obvious changes and growth areas within the GAA family has been our activity away from the field of play and the games with which we are synonymous. Our reach and network of facilities have always made the GAA a focal point in towns and cities throughout the country, but in more recent times we have set about utilising that reach for the greater good, most notably through our community and health department and a number of innovative initiatives, not least our healthy club project. More than 220 clubs are active in following programmes that promote health and well-being alongside Gaelic games to include many people who never played our games and who might never have been drawn to them naturally.
Rarely, if ever, has the importance of sport been more acute. The lure of technology and a less active lifestyle is a temptation that did not occupy the minds of the generation in which I grew up. It is a very real issue for the parents of young children today, knowing as we do that the lifestyle patterns formed in early life have a major bearing on the lives we lead thereafter.
In addition to having real pride in our vast club network, the GAA is highly active in the educational sector. It is extremely grateful for the support of thousands of teachers, of whom I was one for many years. We welcome and actively support the moves to have sport added to the subject list in schools. The GAA future leaders transition year programme, a joint initiative by the GAA and the Professional Development Service for Teachers, is a cross-curricular programme comprising a series of modules designed to encourage maturity, initiative, responsibility and leadership skills in pupils. In addition, over the past eight years we have invested €2 million in assisting young people attend college through a special bursary programme. It is another of our contributions to nurturing the next generation. Similarly, our five star centre programme which aims to provide pupils with 60 minutes of exercise per week through Gaelic games proved a hit with teachers and children alike, with more than 400 schools taking part.
It is impossible to dispute the benefits of an active lifestyle. The mental benefits are no less significant than the positive physical effects. In the context of team sports, the sense of belonging to a group, chasing a shared goal and learning how to win and lose are life lessons acquired in a sporting environment which serve us well in every forum of life. As an organisation, we will assist in any way we can by offering our games and related activities to as many people as possible in the hope of exerting a positive influence on their general well-being.
What began 135 years ago in a small upstairs billiards room as an alliance of athletes, sports enthusiasts and nationalists has become the largest amateur sporting association in the world. From those humble beginnings in Hayes Hotel in Thurles the GAA has grown into a global entity. We are enormously proud to be a towering presence in Irish life and communities through our network of clubs, all of which are driven by local volunteers who dedicate their time to the preservation and promotion of our native games. The GAA now has a worldwide presence. Some 400 overseas GAA clubs serve our diaspora in places such as Montreal, Madrid, Manchester, Maastricht, Moscow, the Middle East and Melbourne in a tradition stretching all the way back home to Mullinalaghta. Not only do the clubs provide a proud expression of identity for our young men and women living abroad, they are an invaluable support structure and network to help Irish people establish a home from home.
As time goes by, our games are proving more and more popular with non-Irish people who are flocking to play them. This is testament to the quality of the native Irish games that the GAA was established to preserve, protect, nurture and develop. World GAA will again be celebrated this year, with over 90 teams coming to County Waterford to compete in our world games competition which serves as a reminder of the ongoing growth and popularity of the games, not least with non-Irish players. Hurling, Gaelic football and, indeed, ladies football and camogie stand in any company when it comes to speed, stamina and, above all, skill.
Late last year, our national sport of hurling received the prestigious accolade of intangible cultural heritage status from UNESCO. The award was the culmination of years of collaborative work between the GAA, academics and senior civil servants which was supported by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan. Hurling is a national treasure. More than 3,000 years old, it has been used to denote our greatest heroes since ancient times. The UNESCO recognition reminds us of our responsibility to ensure this gift is passed on to future generations.
Last summer saw the latest in a long line of epic festivals of hurling. However, we are equally proud of the work being done with young people in lesser-known hurling strongholds to allow them experience the thrill of playing the great game, as former Deputy John Cregan will appreciate.
The GAA is about far more than just sport. The GAA club is very often the focal point of a community. More and more clubs are investing in walking tracks around their pitches to provide a safe and floodlit place for people to walk.
It is another example of the GAA club responding to the needs of its members and its community. The GAA is many things but it is always ultimately about people, and people coming together and working together.
Our status as a volunteer-led, community-based and nationally spread organisation comes with important responsibilities. We voted unanimously last year to distance ourselves from links to gambling, and our competitions are free from all alcohol sponsorship. In the coming months we will be working with Trinity College Dublin on important research taking place around ageing and enhancing the work we do around supporting senior citizens in our communities. It is work we are proud to be engaged in and it supports our aspiration to foster lifelong engagement with the GAA.
Our facilities are a source of immense pride to the local communities which have developed them, often building them with their own hands. In any given year 400 GAA clubs are supported by Croke Park in work undertaken to build clubhouses, improve pitches, erect floodlights, and construct all-weather facilities for our members and wider communities. In the next two years the GAA will double to €4 million the amount invested centrally in this work. Pitches are the key because grey never goes back to green. Green space and sports facilities are the lungs that communities use to breathe. Without them we can see how areas can feel closed, claustrophobic, choked and starved of the oxygen that sport of any sort can provide. We urgently need politicians and planners to promise, protect and provide green space to let people breathe and let communities play.
Our facilities are stretched. They are a vital asset used by our local primary and secondary schools and are relied upon by ladies' football and camogie as well as promoting our own games. We do not have enough facilities to cater for our own games and yet it has become common for some in power to suggest that funding for the GAA should be conditional on our facilities being made available to other sports. It is a requirement that is not levelled at any other organisation and is one we reject. Funding for the GAA should be based on the genuine merits and needs of our association and its membership of more than 750,000 people.
At a time when rural Ireland is in turmoil, the GAA club is needed now more than ever. Communities that were in part identified by their local club are struggling to field teams. Amalgamations once unthinkable, are now a practical way to survive. At the same time, we have faced up to the population explosion of more than two million people living in Leinster by employing dozens of additional coaches and investing an additional €1.5 million into helping clubs in our east Leinster project which looks at big urban areas in Louth, Meath, Wicklow, Kildare and Wexford.
A great man once said that the challenge for the GAA is to be relevant and to stay relevant. That is one by responding to the needs of the people we call our own. We do not measure our success in terms of cups, medals or trophies. The true value of a club is always based on the number of lives positively impacted upon through their involvement with the GAA. When I travel throughout this island every week to visit clubs and communities, that is the thought that strikes me. Men and women well after their playing careers are over and others who never played much at all are out on cold nights and long days, inspired to get involved, give back and be a part of something bigger than themselves.
In recent years we have worked hard to equip our volunteer officers around the country at every level to assist them in the work they carry out on behalf of the GAA. We have invested in education and hope that some of the officer development training will also serve them well in their personal and professional lives.
Of course society today expects higher standards in everything we do regardless of whether we are a volunteer-led organisation. Adherence to regulations and best practice in general are cornerstones of the approach we take in trying to help our officers and units be as efficient as they can in their time management and as compliant as possible. We are fully aware of the added workload and pressure this places on those members who work tirelessly to keep the show on the road.
However, I do believe we need to be mindful of these expectations. While involvement in the GAA is a way of life for many, it is first and foremost a hobby, something to be embraced and enjoyed. When the fun and satisfaction evaporates, so too does the goodwill. This is not a scenario we can countenance. For example, Garda vetting is something we take seriously. Could we simplify this process by examining the possibility of ensuring one process of vetting that would work right across the board for all organisations?
In short, I believe that societally we need to recognise that there are limitations on the weight we can ask volunteers to shoulder. Collectively, we need to cultivate and foster an appreciation of the volunteer movement throughout the country. We need to make it as easy as possible to be a volunteer and to enjoy the experience, cutting down as much as we can on the red tape. Should those countless hours provided disappear, they will not be easily replaced, if at all, and we need to consider every way of supporting and equipping those who put their hands up time and time again with the aim of assisting others to make our communities better for everyone.
The GAA purports to be an inclusive organisation that caters for the whole family. This is evidenced by the number of families who watch and play our games. It is borne out by the men and women, boys and girls - many of them families - who attend matches providing us with our unique unsegregated match-day atmosphere. Of course, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association and An Cumann Camógaíochta are responsible for organising their own games, but we have excellent relationships with both organisations and are working closer than ever following our recent memorandum of understanding. At congress next month, we will put a motion seeking to add the chief executives of both associations to the GAA management committee alongside our own director general. This is another symbol of the close ties that already exist and I look forward to seeing these ties strengthen in the months and years ahead. The one-club model, whereby all of our games are organised under the same umbrella, makes sense and strengthens the reach and appeal of Gaelic games as sports for all.
I hope any such moves in this direction would also see an increase in women entering the administration side of the GAA. As things stand, many of our volunteer officers get involved when they finish playing our games. Strictly speaking, that means men who finish playing football and hurling, handball and rounders, given that ladies football and camogie are both independent entities. With closer ties and collaboration I would dearly love to see the slipstream of recruitment widened to include more women. In turn, this would mean enhanced representation of women on our committees and organising bodies across the wide range of portfolios that need to be filled to power the organisation. I hope the next GAA president afforded the privilege extended to me today will be able to describe real and meaningful change in this area in the years ahead - perhaps that "he" will be a "she".
Faoi dheireadh, I sincerely hope that I have given Members a flavour of the wide range of activities that we are involved in, many of which are away from the cut and thrust of the field of play. I am proud to be part of a vibrant and unique organisation the rival of which I have yet to encounter anywhere. We acknowledge the challenges and the areas where we have work to do and I look forward to working with the legion of GAA members, and many of the Members present, in tackling those issues to ensure the GAA we pass onto the next generation measures up favourably to the one inherited by us, remaining as relevant to life in Ireland as the GAA is today. Go raibh maith agaibh as bhur n-aird inniu agus bhur gcuid ama agus go n éirí go geall libh an dhea-obair atá ar siúl sa Seanad.