Seanad Éireann - Volume 145 - 22 November, 1995

Adjournment Matters. - Eurathlon Programme.

Mr. Mooney: I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to raise this issue. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education. It is always a pleasure to have him attend the House to deal with matters of mutual interest.

The Eurathlon Programme was launched by the European Commission earlier this year in response to an initiative from the European Parliament and the European Sports Forum. Following the experience of the first year, Eurathlon II has been amended and improved. The programme exists to promote [687] sports related activities of all kinds. For example, it promotes exchanges between European citizens based on the capacity of sport to bring people together. The Commission specifically states that such exchanges should contribute to a greater understanding and acceptance of socio-cultural differences between member states. It further states that Eurathlon 11 will support sporting activities with a social purpose, such as combating unemployment, exclusion, racism and violence, in addition to equality of opportunity between men and women.

These are worthy objectives and I applaud the Commission for implementing this programme, albeit with a small amount of funds. However, I am seriously concerned that the requirement for funds under this programme must originate in at least three member states. I suggest that this will do little to foster good relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic and between our near neighbours in England, Scotland and Wales who have long and proud sporting traditions. A continuing inter-relationship exists in a wide variety of sports between the home nations and Ireland. I refer specifically to our national games, Gaelic football, hurling and, to a lesser extent, soccer. The latter is one of the few island-wide sporting activities which operates under two separate administrations — the Football Association of Ireland in Dublin and the Irish Football Association in Belfast.

The operation of the three member state ruling will inhibit the breakdown of distrust and ignorance which has bedevilled good relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and Britain and Ireland — especially Scottish-Irish relations where sectarian hatred is a sad fact of life, particularly in Glasgow. I draw the Minister's attention to a recent television programme on Channel 4 which explored the tribalism of supporters of Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers football clubs. Anyone who believes that sport should be a [688] unifying force for good in the community would have been appalled at the display of bigotry, hatred and intolerance expressed, by both sides, in language that belongs more to the Middle Ages than a modern, late 20th century civilisation.

In a spirit of reconciliation and support for the liberal objectives enshrined in the Eurathlon II Programme, I respectfully request the Minister and the Irish Government to seek amendments to any future Eurathlon Programme to take account of the unique relationship between the peoples of these islands. I specifically request a derogation from the three member state ruling, as it applies to Great Britain and Ireland, to permit sporting organisations on either side of the Border — and between Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales — to avail of funding under the Eurathlon Programme, if not now then perhaps in the future.

I acknowledge that the funding available under this programme is small. However, the Minister knows better than I that European programmes which are successful tend not only to be retained but are provided with significantly greater funding as each programme is implemented.

As I stated at the outset, I fully support the concept of Eurathlon and wish it well but in order for it to have real impact on this island and with our near neighbours on the periphery of Europe, I believe the three member state ruling should be dropped. I am particularly pleased that, as Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Allen has responsibility for sport. We have often discussed sporting matters together and he was born into a sporting tradition in the proud and historic city of Cork. I have no doubt that he is the right man in the right place to carry out any changes or improvements that must be made.

Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Allen): I thank Senator Mooney for his expression of confidence and kind remarks. I also [689] thank the Senator for raising this matter and affording us an opportunity to discuss it.

I share with the Senator a great interest in, and admiration for, our country's national games. Camogie, hurling, Gaelic football, handball and road bowling — a sport peculiar to my own county, County Mayo and County Wexford — are outstanding games which have been part of the fabric of life in Ireland for many generations. In fact, we read descriptions of hurling being played since the earliest days of our recorded history. Cuchulainn is said to have played hurling and judging by his exploits, any county in Ireland — certainly some of the counties in Munster — would be glad of his talents today.

I am convinced, however, and I have spoken publicly about this matter on a number of occasions, that the unique quality and traditions of our national indigenous games are of great importance to our country. I am equally convinced that the significance of national games should be acknowledged and nurtured in the context of the European Union. Ireland is fortunate to have its own indigenous games and a number of our European Union partners also have thriving national and regional sports.

These national games bring joy and prestige to the countries and regions of the European Union. They are a mark of a country's distinctiveness, uniqueness and show that — within the regions — there is a vibrant, live involvement in sports, many of them going back over hundreds of years of history and culture.

I welcome the introduction of the Eurathlon Programme by the European Commission as a contribution to sport throughout the Union. I commend the Commission on this initiative. Concern has been expressed that perhaps the sport authorities in the member states were not fully involved in the drawing up of the programme. However, I look forward to the further development of Eurathlon and the benefits it can bring to sport — particularly indigenous sport — in the future.

[690] I will be meeting senior officials of the Commission in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday of next week and I had already intended to raise with them the importance of our national games and the need for Europe to pay particular attention to indigenous sport in the regions. I will raise this topic on a number of occasions with different directors in Brussels next week.

Senator Mooney raised the matter of the requirement of at least three member states be involved in order to benefit under Eurathlon. I assure the Senator that I will bring these concerns to the attention of the appropriate officials in the Commission at my meetings next week. The incidents in Glasgow and throughout the European Union to which the Senator referred are of concern to me. This programme can address the issue of racism in sport which must be tackled.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue. Our native games are very special. I am very aware of their importance in our society. They are part of our culture and history. I will do all I can to ensure that they continue to thrive and that our partners in Europe are made fully aware of their importance not just at home but in the wider context of the Union and its regions.

Mr. Mooney: I thank the Minister for his exposition. I assure him that I have every confidence in his capacity to encourage his European colleagues to perceive the context in which this programme can hopefully improve and expand. I wish the Minister well.