The Minister of State for Sport, Patrick O’Donovan admits he was ‘one of the last to be picked’ when it came to school sport but he has overcome that slow start to now control the Government’s engagement with, interest and investment in sport.
As part of our Leadership series of interviews with people of strong opinion and strong commitment to sport on the island of Ireland and further afield, brought to you in partnership with our patron members PwC, Minister O’Donovan sat down with us to address Government priorities, the balance between participation and performance, the Olympic controversy and much more…
Sport for Business: What do you see as the Government’s three key priorities for sport in the next twelve months?
Minister O’Donovan: The National Sports Policy, the role of women in leadership in sport and capital investment.
The National Sports Policy is the blueprint for where we want to take sports in this country and I want to ensure that we allow and encourage everyone to participate in sport, at a level that is suitable to them. Not everyone is going to be an Olympian or a county footballer, but everyone can and should be involved in sports.
I would also like to see more women involved in leadership positions in sport – be that at board level, executive level or coaching. I believe this is urgently needed; I’ve been talking to my EU counterparts about it and I have some ideas about where we should be moving to ensure that women don’t just participate in sport, but also participate in key leadership roles in sports.
I also want to continue with sports capital investment. We’ve made good progress here since 2011, but there are still deficiencies in terms of basic infrastructure for lots of sporting organisations. Our facilities should be child friendly and also conducive to child protection. The basic infrastructure of sporting organisations also impacts on the attractiveness of a sport as a whole – so I very much want to ensure that my colleagues in Government share my views and continue investment in capital.
What would those priorities be if given a run at this for ten years?
I would really like to see a seamless transition from early childhood play into sports. Play, particularly outdoor play, is sport, just for our youngest citizens. And I believe that play grounds, jungle gyms and similar facilities should be viewed in the same light as sports facilities.
We need all kids to be able to access decent play or playground facilities. It’s only now that I am a parent myself that I appreciate that. And while some communities have brilliant facilities like playgrounds and sports fields – others do not.
Overall, I believe that there is no difference between play policy and sports policy and I would dearly love to push that agenda into the next decade.
I would also like to see a bigger emphasis on high performance athletes. As a small country, I think we should be emulating New Zealand, which has a similar population size, but managed to take home 15 medals in the Rio Olympics.
Under the leadership of John Treacy in Sport Ireland, I think this is absolutely achievable. But, it will require that our sports policy is backed by considerable Government investment.
It’s my job to convince my colleagues that this is an area worth investing in, both in terms of the individuals who we will support but also from a national perspective in terms of how we could be viewed internationally as a country that invests in its elite athletes.
The Rugby World Cup in 2023 is a massive opportunity – both from the sports perspective but also wearing my other political hat, that of Minister with responsibility for Tourism.
I’d love to be looking back in 2026 saying wasn’t that a fantastic World Cup and didn’t we do ourselves proud? I believe the Rugby World Cup has the potential to catapult Ireland onto the international stage as a country which can host major sporting events.
It is also an opportunity to showcase the north and south of this island as well as how much our sporting organisations have matured, given the hand of friendship that the GAA has extended to the rugby fraternity throughout all of this process.
Do you believe there is greater scope for collaboration across Government Departments and how might that look in relation to health and education in particular?
Yes. Absolutely. Look at education. No matter how many schools I visit, when I ask who wants PE to be a Leaving Cert subject, every hand in the class will go up. Not just the best hurler or basketball player in the class. This is about giving young people skills that they don’t have around human anatomy, well-being, diet, and more.
If you look at the Obesity Strategy and Healthy Ireland, they are clear examples where Government Departments are and will have to work together but also involve the private sector and industry too. People need to exercise as well as look after their diet, if we are to avoid the obesity crisis that is headed our way.
Even in areas like housing, we should have a more joined up approach. When we are asking ourselves where are we going to build houses we should also be thinking about what amenities are needed and will the residents have access to leisure and sporting activities.
I’d envisage Sport Ireland having a real say in regional and national planning guidelines, to give their input into what facilities are needed as part of new towns or developments which are being planned for the future.
Finally, regarding a joined up approach for Tourism and Sport – I see no difference between the people who are visiting Ireland to go to the Wild Atlantic Way or those who come to Ireland to go to a major sporting event or take part in a round of golf.
They are all tourists. I believe there is greater scope for work between Sport Ireland, Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland. And within all of this, I believe that we need to value our domestic tourists – be they going to Dublin to watch the final in Croke Park or going to the Punchestown Races – as much as we value those who are flying in from London or wherever for the weekend.
What’s your personal sense of the balance that should be struck between elite performance and participation in terms of Government support?
I think they are both distinct in their own right. I would love to see Ireland aspire to winning 15 medals in the next Olympic Games, but no more or less than I want to see people out and active in sports that suits their individual abilities.
It is never too late to take up a sport – nor should there be any barriers to taking up a sport. I believe that we need to get kids interested in sports at an earlier age. That may help us in identifying who will be the high performers. They in turn can encourage or inspire people on into taking up a sport. A case in point is the O’Donovan brothers or Annalise Murphy.
Most people would look at rowing as a minority sport. Yet we are a country surrounded by water and our Olympians have shown us that we can excel in it.
Would you support another round of Sports Capital Funding?
Yes. This is in the Programme for Government and I am working with officials in my Department to put a comprehensive new plan in place. Of course there are competing demands for a limited amount of exchequer and capital funding, but I feel very strongly about this and am convincing my colleagues of the benefits.
What would be your view on the idea that we need more investment in people and programmes rather than pitches and dressing rooms?
This is not a question of either/or. I still see communities across country where they are struggling with poor facilities and not just in the inner cities. Often rural communities have the same problems with a lack of sports infrastructure for their young people and kids.
We do need to start looking at coaching too and sports partnerships are essential to this. There are plenty of examples of these partnerships doing fantastic work like the INTO and Cumann na mBunscol. Here teachers and GAA have taken the initiatives themselves to ensure there is another generation with the skills set to coach GAA teams.
In terms of a national conversation I also believe that more women should be involved in coaching and indeed sports as a whole.
These are life skills and it’s also really important that our girls and young women have female role models and coaches in sports to inspire them.
Is there any obligation on Government to support lesser sports with smaller commercial supports?
My role is to get the maximum amount of money I can for sport and then that money is channeled through Sports Ireland to individual sports.
Their job is to do so on an annual basis – as a board they decide on where the funds should go and where best the return will be in terms of the both the volume of people involved and the results that can be achieved.
My view is that we need to ask ourselves, are we spending money in the right locations and are we doing the right things with the right amount of money in the right places. Great if we are. If we aren’t, then change it.
For example, water based sports did not get the same level of attention or funding in the run up to the Olympics as other sports and yet, those athletes achieved the best results.
I believe in encouraging Sport Ireland to ask the hard questions of our sporting bodies and our athletes. I believe Sport Ireland and John Treacy have shown that they are agile and can move and change focus, if that is what is needed.
Are you excited by the prospect of Ireland hosting the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2017, Euro 2020 and then maybe The Rugby World Cup in 2023.
I remember watching the Euros in 1988 and never in a million years would I have thought back then that Ireland would be in with a shout of hosting the Euros in 2020. I also remember watching the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Trophy to the Springboks on their home turf.
Again, did I think Ireland would ever be in a position to host such games? No way. Up until a couple of years ago, I don’t think Ireland would have even dreamed of applying to host these prestigious games.
And, hosting the Women’s Rugby World Cup is not just about showcasing women in sport, it is also about putting the spotlight on Ireland as a country which has world class sports infrastructure and will show the visitors a great time to boot.
I think that it is also worth pointing out that we would not be able to even compete on the world stage without the close collaboration of Government and the sporting bodies like the IRFU and in particular the GAA.
The GAA has never looked for an ounce of credit on this island, however, it has gone way above the call of duty, through the current and past leadership, in extending the hand of friendship both to the rugby fraternity and to those across the border in the national interest. I think we all owe the GAA a massive debt of gratitude.
How do you see the link between tourism and sport?
The two are absolutely interlinked – hand in glove. Take the high performance unit in the University of Limerick where athletes come to train in the altitude facility, the golfers who are coming into Ballybunion to play the courses there, the rugby fans who travel to Dublin to watch an international – they are all helping to keep people in jobs in tourism.
And I think there is massive growth potential in sports tourism. The two tourism agencies, Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland along with Sport Ireland should be looking at opportunities to promote sports tourism.
Recently, I was at the Junior World Kick-boxing Championships in City West. For many of the competitors there, Ireland was probably never on their radar before. But, they had a great time at the competition, lots of them went on day trips into Dublin or wider in the surrounding countryside and all contributed to the local economy.
I think we also sent them home to their respective countries with a very positive view of Ireland and hopefully they will think about coming back here on a longer holiday in the near future.
What can we expect from the new National Policy on Sport?
I’ll be launching the new National Policy on Sport shortly and then we will ask for input from those who are interested through a consultation process. I see it as plotting out the aspiration of where we want to go with sport and the map of how we get there.
The policy raises the bar on what we must do as a country and it also starts a conversation on how we value sport, participation in sport and how our citizens benefit.
I’d like to think that there will be plenty of discussions around the policy – not just with other politicians, although I would welcome that too. I’m listening to the governing bodies of sport and I’ve been at pains to meet them since taking up my post in May.
I need their help in terms of getting answers to the important questions about sport and I’d like to think that the National Policy on Sport will be the blueprint for future development of sport.
What is your own background in sport?
I’m probably one of the most unlikely people to have this job. Up until I was 16 or 17, I had severe asthma and didn’t know that I had it, so in terms of sport I got off to a bad start. I just wasn’t up to it – my lungs were crap.
I literally was the kid who was left to last as the two most sporty lads in the class picked the teams in school, usually having to listen to “God Sir, do we really have to take Patrick?.”
Later on, I took up swimming and cycling. I know now that if I had managed my asthma I would have been fine. But, in that sense, I’m probably no different to a whole pile of other people out there.
I know there are massive numbers of kids and adults who don’t manage their asthma, or other issues which may affect their ability to play sport properly – and look at times I’m still “too busy” to manage my asthma, which I know is a terrible excuse.
What did sport teach you that was important in terms of your political career?
Participation is everything. In line with what I have just said, one of the things that can really set you back as a kid in terms of taking part in sport is if your confidence is knocked.
That’s why I believe that coaching – and proper training for coaching – is vital. We need to identify the kids with challenges in terms of taking part in sport, be that health issues, disabilities or their LGBT status, and deal with them in a compassionate and understanding why. This is why I believe that we need to see investment in coaching.
Coaches, many of whom are volunteers, need to be equipped to notice and then deal with these issues. For me, politics was also a way to take part in something that felt like a team sport – but in this case, it was something that I was good at.
When do you think Limerick might win their next Senior All Ireland?
I nearly cried for Mayo last Saturday in Croke Park, as I think they are to football what we are to hurling. My father, who has been a huge influence on me, and who passed away three years ago, was born in 1930. He saw Limerick win in 1940 and again in 1973.
We both sat through the heartbreak of ’94 and ’96 together – the heartbreak of a county who are starved of success. And that journey home on the N7 after losing a match is one of the loneliest journeys you can make.
I’m sorry that we didn’t get to see Limerick win a senior title together – but at least the minors took home the cup in 1984 and we are a great GAA county. With the under 21’s All Ireland win last year, I think Limerick is gearing up for success again. So, as I’ve waited this long, I don’t mind waiting another 12 months.
What was your gut instinct as the Olympic story began to emerge concerning the OCI and are you satisfied that the inquiries under way will deliver a full picture of what the background to this was?
There’s an inquiry on-going here and I’m cognisant of that. I’m the Minister who took the initiative to undertake an inquiry, so I don’t want to negatively impact on that. Judge Moran deserves the space to do his work and it would be irresponsible of me to comment on it before he presents his findings to me and the Government.
Do you believe that Governance in Irish sport is in a good place or do you believe improvements might be made?
There’s always an opportunity to improve the health of sport. I never take standards in governance for granted anywhere.
My view is very clear, in return for state investment anywhere be it health or agriculture or education or sport there must be compliance with governance and absolute probity.
I have no reason to think that everything isn’t above board in terms of sporting corporate governance – but we should constantly examine if what we are getting is what it says on the tin.
I’m having conversations in my department around how do we ensure robust corporate governance, that the money that goes to sport, goes to where it should be going to. I’m no reason to believe otherwise. Sport Ireland is behind me 100% and that’s something we are working on together now.
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