Republic of Ireland international, Eamon Dunphy, is a Dubliner who became one of the most respecteddand often controversial-players in English soccer. He played for Manchester United and later spent eight years at Milwall. His book about his experiences there,'Only a Game: is said by other footballers to be the best book ever written about football. He came back to Ireland at the beginning of this season to join Johnny Giles at Shamrock Rovers and has played a major role in the team's resurgence. A quiet thoughtful man, he has strong views on the role of sport in Irish society.
VIEWED IN the context of succcessive governments' sports policies the fact that Jack Lynch was formerly a sporting hero is supremely ironic- He, more than anyone in politics, should be aware of the value of sport. Yet there is no evidence from his last spell in office, the subsequent period in opposition, or indeed in present policy commitment, that the wellbeing of Irish sportsmen and women is close to his political heart. There is, on the contrary, much evidence to suggest that the Taoiseach, like the rest of his political colleagues, is content to let sporting affairs remain a political backwater.
There are a number of reasons why this should be so, but they all boil down to the same thing. As Noel Carroll, Ireeland's Olympic 800 metre runner obserrves; "There are no votes in sport". Carroll, whose job with Dublin Corporration provides a good vantage point from which to view the sporting and reecreational needs of inner city youth, is blunt in his criticism of government sports policy. "We must have the most neglected youth in the world. It is a shocking waste of our sporting potenttial. " Those words are echoed wherever I went in the inner city area of Dublin.
But before looking in depth at the deprived urban areas it is worth examinning the wider question of the role of sport in society. Why should we expect the government to serve our sporting needs? Why should we allocate resourrces to what some people stilI regard as nothing more than "a 'lot of silly men chasing a ball around"?
There are three basic reasons why government investment in sport makes sense. First, there is the return, in terms of prestige and goodwill, that international sporting success bestows these days. Success in top national and interrnational sport can pay unexpected, and yet measurable, dividends. For example, it was estimated that in the six months following Sunderlands 1974 f.A. cup victory, productivity in local industry increased by 10%! And there is, from that unimpeachable source of political wisdom, Harold Wilson, evidence of the damage to a nation's morale that can follow defeat on the international sports field. Harold remains convinced that his shock defeat in the 1970 election was due to the nation's resentment at England's World Cup elimination a few days before! Who said there were no votes in sport?
A much more profound need for a flourishing sports environment exists A much more profound need for a flourishing sports evironment exists within local communities. Here the role of sport is to provide for people's growwing leisure needs. A functioning sports club offers an alternative to pub or disco and, of course, a chance to keep fit. Sport is, in this context, a breaker of social barriers, its function being simply to oil the communitys wheels.
Thirdly, sport can serve as a palliative for some of the social problems that exist in deprived urban areas. Nobody would pretend that the answer to youth unemployment and the physical decay of the inner city lies in providing gyms and youth clubs. Nevertheless, as Shadow Minister for Urban Affairs, Michael Keating, points out, "The cost of allowing the inner city to die on its feet may ultimately make what is pressently needed for decent recreational faccilities seem cheap".
THERE RESTS the case for a government policy on sport. What IS our own government s response to it? When it comes to sport it seems Irish politicians are in -accord with the sentiment "God helps those who help themselves"
What this 'self help' policy amounts to is this: a local community which is resourceful and prospcrous enough to raise funds for and build its own sports complex will be granted from governnment-if proposals in a recently in a reccent policy document are implementeddan 'interest subsidy' on any loan they may arrange. On the other hand a commmunity that is unable to raise a commmercial loan will have to do without a sports complex.
Thus, in a prosperous self sufficient suburb, such as Ballinteer, a sports centre complete with gym, swimming pool, tennis courts and various other facilities provides recreation for the whole family, for under £10 a year. By way of contrast there is, a few miles down the road, the inner city area bounded by Church Street and the East Wall, a desperate need for even the most basic essentials. Here, at the junction of Sean McDermott Street and Marlboro' Street, you can find on any dark winter night a group of kids playing football by street light. Recreation here involves risking life and limb-your own and those of passing motorists.
It is here too that the policy of 'self help' begins to look like political expeddiency and the concept of 'interest subsidy' nothing more than a sick joke. According to Tony Gregory, Secretary of the North Central Community Council, "There is in this whole area only one functioning gym." Gregory, like most local people, is not unaware of the irony that the T.D. for North the irony that the T.D. for North Cenntral, Michael O'Leary, was a leading member of the last administration.
In a sense one's investigation of the government's sports policy grinds to a halt in Dublin North Central. Talk of innternational prestige and suburban commmunity sports centres is meaningless if the task of rescueing kids from traffic and crime is beyond us. And that is unndoubtedly the case at present. In terms of policy and the political response to North Central is non-existent. If there is hope to be found it materialises in the awareness of some city politicians, one of whom, Michael Keating, acknowleddges the acute nature of the problem:
"Sport and recreational facilities must become a government priority. We must establish the political will to tackle these problems, particularly in the inner city. The people of the area must beecome more articulate and agitate for their needs. "
In the absence of government policcies and, therefore, of government funds, Irish sport functions by vi~tue of a masssive army of volunteers without whom the present juvenile crime rate would seem insignificant, and in whose absence life for this particular contributor would have taken a different, and much less agreeable course. They fill, as best they can, the vacuum created by the policy of 'self help'. They provide the structture, the money, the facilities and the leadership for sport: That they persevere in the face of government apathy, and are very often despised by the powerful national bodies in their own sport, is one of life's minor miracles. The con cept in policy document jargon, is volluntarism to which much official lippservice is paid. Yet the very existence of voluntary workers is used as an excuse for the lack of initiative on the part of the state.
Voluntary workers provide a prop for a very unsound structure and are conscious of this themselves.
MENTION OF government elicits from them a wry smile rather than bitterness. They are not so much politically naive as apolitical. As one of them remarked to me, "Politics is another world. I don't really have any time to think about it".
Jackie Doran is a volunteer whose attitude and problems are typical. Jackie runs a schoolboy soccer team in Ballymun, a task that with weekend games, midweek training sessions, and the constant harvesting of resources, leaves him precious little time for his own family, a wife and five kids. His counterpart abroad would have a grand title and a state-funded back-up system to ease the burden. Jackie has a pitch provided by Dublin Corporation (sharring with another local club) and no faccilities to speak of. I met him on a cold, wet night last week as he was finishing a two hour training session with the kids. They 'trained' in the dark, one bail chased by upwards of two dozen kids. It was marginally better than Sean McDermott Street. At least there were no cars, and of course it was infinitely better than what the kids might have been doing had Jackie chosen politics as a hobby. Perhaps it represented the logical conclusion of the policy of 'self-help'. .
Jackie's involvement with schoolboy soccer in the area goes back ten years. In that time nothing has changed in terms of facilities: 'The community school has a gym but it costs £6 to hire. This is more than we can afford " says Jackie. 'There is talk of a sports centre up here, but it's a question of money'. And if they had a gym? 'We could show films when the weather was too bad to train, organise sports forums and cater for something other than football. I'd love to invite someone like Johnny Giles to speak to the kids, to show them that they were being noticed, that what they are doing is worthwhile, but as things stand we wouldn't have anywhere to invite him to'.
SIMPLE NEEDS, yet in Ballymun they seem a long way from fulfillment. The same incredible tale could be told throughout the city. Back in Dublin North Central, Noel McCabe, youth leader at Belvedere Boys Club explained one particular problem his young footballers face. 'We take the kids training in Fairview Park, but beecause the dressing rooms there are closed on winter nights the lads strip here in the club and run to the park. This means that we have boys from ten years of age crossing busy roads in the dark and obviously it's not the ideal situation.' It's quite a run from Gardiner Street to Fairview for anyone at any time, but for ten year olds, through the traffic ... ! the caretaker overtime,' explains Noel. Once again one's imagination ~s stretched to breaking point. Surely a club such as the 'Belvo' - the only club offering facilities in this area - deserves better. offering facilities in this area - deserves better.
Alas, as Noel Carroll says, 'There are no votes in sport'. Allowing for polittical realities it is hard to summon up much optism for the future. The best, indeed it would seem, the only, hope lies in the creation of a sports lobby bringing together the various sporting and youth organisations in an orchesttrated attempt to apply some political 'muscle'.
Ideally such a movement would be spearheaded by the G.A.A., which remains - in terms of finance and polittical 'clout' - the most powerful sports organisation in the country. While the idea of such an amalgamation may seem far fetched in the light of the G.A.A.'s traditional (shall we say) independence it ought to be noted that the Gaelic authorities have recently approached the Government seeking a massive grant for a new development scheme.
Without the G.A.A. any attempt to apply political pressure would be serriously undermined. Nevertheless, before the next election other sport and youth organisations must generate some polittical heat.
What they ought to be seeking is nothing less than a complete reappraisal of the Government's role in Irish sport. For there is no way that the current policy of 'self-help' meets even the most basic needs of sport and youth. To do that the Government must become an initiator, with a central role, rather than a supporter, with a passing interest.