Inside Shane Ross' diary: the wrong man in the wrong job 1 month ago

Inside Shane Ross' diary: the wrong man in the wrong job

Who was the Minister for Sport before Shane Ross?

Every so often, someone covers a song so well or in such a memorable fashion that you forget who actually wrote the original. When you hear “Nothing Compares 2 U” in your head, it’s Sinead O’Connor’s voice that echoes, not Prince’s. If you were pushed at a table quiz to say who originally released that famous girl-power, era-defining anthem ‘Respect’, you’d be laughed out of it for suggesting Otis Redding over Aretha Franklin. If you were asked which Minister for Sport was responsible for bobbing their head over one of Ireland’s greatest ever athletes upon their triumphant return to Dublin airport, you’d say Shane Ross over Paschal Donoghue or Leo Varadkar every time.

In a tenure of just under four years, Shane Ross has forever made himself synonymous with the role of Minister for Sport, for better or for worse. He has placed himself (literally) front and centre of Irish sport at every possible opportunity.

When I decided to go through his ministerial diaries since taking office in May of 2016, I must admit I did so with understandable prejudices. I did not expect him to have attended almost as many soccer games as rugby matches. I did not think he would have made a visit to Arbour Hill Boxing Club and have members of Baldoyle Boxing Club visit Leinster House on his invitation. I was slightly surprised to learn that having attended Ireland v New Zealand in Tokyo, Minister Ross chose to extend his stay in the Far East for an extra week for what a spokesperson for the Minister told SportsJOE was for “a personal holiday – all of which he paid for personally. No official business was conducted and no public funds were used.”

There may be sporting events Shane Ross attended that weren't listed in these diaries, but what emerges from what is there is a picture of someone who should never have been made Minister for Sport. Who is indicative of a deep-running problem in Irish politics of awarding portfolios to Ministers with no experience and even less passion for the areas they are responsible for. A man who perhaps made a valiant effort, but ultimately ended up annoying fans of pretty much every sport in the country and who provided more entertainment and frustration than genuine, positive impact.

A Wider Problem

Let’s start with an issue that runs deeper than Ross: why is the ministerial portfolio of sport lumped in with Transport and Tourism? That came about in a reshuffling of responsibilities in 2011, when the brief life of the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport came to an end. It had only been changed from Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism in 2010, having spent 8 years in that combination prior to that. Going back to 1997, it was the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation.

You can understand the connections between tourism and sport. The GAA is a unique selling point for Ireland, easily marketable and a huge draw for potential tourists. Large-scale events such as Euro 2020 also mean that tourism and sport can be seen as largely intrinsic. But the issue arises that the same can be said for transport and tourism. You have to get here from another country, and then you have to get around the country, and then you have to leave the country. They kind of go hand in hand. Sport and Tourism? Not so much. Only two sides of the triangle ever add up.

So, to an extent, how can you expect a Minister to overlook and oversee a responsibility as large as sport is in Ireland while also managing the vital roles of tourism and transport? Why do our governments hand out Ministerial portfolios like parents taking kids for a treat after Mass, rather than being based on experience or merit? Our last Minister for Education (Joe McHugh) was a rare exception in that he was a former teacher.  But the majority of Ministers take over portfolios with little or no track record or expertise in what they are supposed to be responsible for. Shane Ross was no different when it came to sport.

Right for part of the job?

Shane Ross’ experience before his election as a TD in 2011 was as a stockbroker and the editor of the Business section of the Sunday Independent. In his time as a Senator, from 1981 through to 2011, and as a TD from 2011 to 2016, I could find only two reference made by Minister Ross to sport in Oireachtas debates. He mentioned football twice in 35 years, but was at least fond of the phrase ‘political football’, that cropped up time and time again in passionate debates about areas he was actually interested in. Was that was listed on his CV under “sporting experience” when he was handed the portfolio in 2016?

It’s a different story in Transport, where he had genuine and practical experience in the issues he was dealing with. Ross was nominated to the Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Transport in 1997, and the Joint Committee on Transport in 2007. He had experience in that area, and a proven track record. His website states as much;

“During his time in the Senate, he was a regular contributor to debate and raised many notable issues, such as the economy; broadband; Eircom; transport issues (particularly relating to the M50 chaos); childcare and education as well as waste in the public sector.”

The (now former) Minister for Sport can’t even feign an interest on his own website in what should be a third of his brief. How can we have a Minister for Sport who doesn’t actually know anything about its importance, its functions and can’t relate to what goes on on the ground?

It’s what leads to ministerial fire-fighting. From his appointment in May 2016 up until the FAI revelations broke in April of last year, Shane Ross had one meeting or briefing related to football in Ireland (according to his ministerial diaries). From the date of those revelations to December of last year, he had twenty. Interestingly enough, the one meeting he did have before 2019 was with former FAI CEO John Delaney on July 12th 2017, which, a spokesperson for Shane Ross told SportsJOE was “held to discuss the future of women’s soccer.”

The FAI’s problems were of no one’s making but their own. Despite some anger directed towards Ross around his subsequent handling of the FAI’s mismanagement of their finances, he has stood firm with public money and refused to bow to the FAI until a clear-out of the old guard has occurred and assurances are in place. But, could a Minister who was more in touch with grassroots football have listened to concerns and acted beforehand? If there was a dedicated Minister for Sport, would the FAI crisis be as deep as it is now?

Being there isn't enough

Shane Ross’ tenure can simply be defined as one of the absent parent for sport. He showed up on the big days, without fail. But was he there for the nitty-gritty, everyday mundanity? Or did he just show up on a Sunday for a few hours, play the hero and then disappear off into the ether? Let's take a look at the highlights, he;

  • missed just one home Irish men’s rugby Test in his entire time in office, versus South Africa back in November 2017, because he had travelled to Copenhagen for Ireland’s World Cup playoff against Denmark.
  • watched Ireland topple New Zealand in Chicago in 2016
  • was barely in office before he was off to Rio for the Olympics that same year
  • showed up at Lords when Ireland faced England there for the first time
  • landed in time for Shane Lowry’s crowning as British Open champion last year
  • took in Arsenal’s pre-season clash with Chelsea at the Aviva Stadium
  • took his seat for every Senior All-Ireland Final (barring two Camogie showpieces)
  • even made it to Tokyo to watch Ireland’s dismal hammering at the hands of New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup.

He also never helped himself.

There were the controversial awarding of grants for sports and institutions close to his heart, and home. A Minister for Sport who managed to mix up the Kearney brothers and then congratulate Sanita “Dominant” Puspure for her gold medal in the women’s single sculls final at the World Championships in 2018. He undid so much of his work relating to the FAI by putting up a mocking tweet over Christmas holding a cooked goose with the caption “Guess who cooked my goose? The FAI? The Judges? The Vintners ?”. He referred to Kellie Harrington as “Katie” when she came back injured from the European Games last summer. He referred to Olympic hurdler Thomas Barr as “Thomas Barry”, Stephen Kenny became “Shane” and he even credited Shay Given with both assisting and scoring Shane Long’s famous winner against Germany.

These things matter.

To show that level of incompetency and a lack of basic knowledge across so many major sports in Ireland is just unacceptable for a Minister with responsibility for that area. For example, being able to attend Senior men’s soccer games in the Aviva is great, but it’s a perk of office, not a reflection of actual work for the good of the sporting nation. We keep hearing about the importance of “grassroots football” from Ross, like a man who has heard a nice nugget while getting a drink at the bar and repeats it verbatim to his friends when he returns. From his diaries, the only “grassroots football” events Shane Ross attended in his tenure were a Lakelands FC prizegiving on September 2nd 2018, a Leicester Celtic book launch in March of that same year and the same club’s Family Fun Day in September of 2017. Both of those clubs are in his constituency.

From his diaries, Shane Ross attended 144 matches, events or awards ceremonies in his time as Minister. Rugby topped the bill with 39, although this was partly due to Ireland’s hosting of the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2017 and the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring the Men’s 2023 Rugby World Cup to Ireland. He attended an identical number of “other” events, including cricket, golf, the Horse Show and generic sports awards. Soccer came next with 34. Maybe he shouted about some sports more than others, but he attended just one more hockey event (5) than boxing (4) in his time as Minister. He was there when he thought it mattered.

Ask a simple question; should a man whose only contributions on sport in a 35-year period spanning both houses of the Oireachtas were a motion put down by himself and David Norris in July 1990 “That Seanad Éireann notes with pride the outstanding performance of the Irish team in the World Cup in Rome and also the exemplary behaviour of the Irish football fans” and a jibe at Enda Kenny for cozying up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October 2012, asking the then Taoiseach would he be inviting his “friend” to the game between Ireland and Gernmany the following Friday, ever have been given the ministerial portfolio for sport?

Showing up, waving to the crowd and posting a photo with your tie poking out of your fly just isn’t enough though. When the 33rd Dáil is elected, and whether the portfolios remain the same or get shuffled, a Minister with responsibility for sport with experience, interest and passion in the area must be appointed.