A painted football pitch on a roof outside the Constitution Hill flats.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross has been at the centre of controversy over his department’s decision to award, on appeal, a grant of €150,000 to elite South Dublin secondary school Wesley College, in association with the local YMCA, for the refurbishment of a hockey pitch.

Wesley College is already the proud owner of four rugby pitches, two cricket pitches, two modern hockey pitches, two basketball courts, as well as a soccer pitch, a gymnasium and a sports hall. Critics have pointed to the often inadequate state, if they exist at all, of such facilities in more deprived areas (including many schools in Dublin and elsewhere).

Wesley charges fees of €6,250 a year for day students (boarders pay even more). It is in the minister’s constituency and he has been criticized for tweeting his congratulations to it after the grant was awarded, though he denies he interfered in the grant-allocation process.

The money was given under the state’s Sports Capital Programme, which, to its credit, publishes the criteria it uses to grade different grant applications. The overall objectives of the programme include to “prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas in the provision of sports facilities”. The criteria follow through on this by specifically including assessments of disadvantage in the decision-making process.

Criterion 1 (of six) includes, as one of three sub-criteria, “the encouragement of disadvantaged groups”.  Criterion 2 is entirely focused on disadvantage – projects should get higher scores the more socially and economically disadvantaged are the areas in which they are located.

Likewise, criterion 5 specifies that projects in the more disadvantaged areas are (reasonably enough) expected to contribute fewer resources of their own to the overall project cost.

While the criteria are not weighted equally, they would, overall, appear to favour sports facilities in more deprived locations.

Which makes the Wesley grant decision all the more surprising – it is one of three similar such projects in the South Dublin area that each won a €150,000 grant on appeal after its application was initially rejected.

The others were Three Rock Rovers hockey club and Loreto Beaufort school. All involved the resurfacing of hockey pitches, and Minister Ross tweeted his delight in relation to each decision.

The website Balls.ie comments that “it is difficult to fathom how three different bodies were awarded a combined €450,000 to resurface pitches seemingly all serving the same purpose; more so due to the fact that all three are within a short drive of each other”.

The full list of grants approved under the Sports Capital Programme for 2017 suggests that a wide range of projects around the country is funded, the vast majority doubtless deserving recipients. But it is the list of projects approved on appeal (including Wesley) that is most striking – because of the resources some recipients already possess, and because of the size of the grants awarded.

These include three Dublin golf clubs: Balbriggan (a grant of €103,430), Malahide (€150,000), and Slade Valley (€97,760). Malahide charges an annual membership fee of €8,400. Howth Yacht Club, also on appeal, received €74,200.

Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster makes the reasonable observation that “If a club can charge €8,000 annual fees from members, then it should use that money to improve facilities. The rest of us shouldn’t have to pick up the bill.”

But that is precisely what we have done – picked up, in several cases, sizeable bills to subsidise the already excellent sports facilities enjoyed by largely privileged groups in society.

In a recent post on the irisheconomy.ie website, Professor Gregory Connor of the National University of Ireland in Maynooth claimed that educational advantage and disadvantage does not explain how different individuals and groups in society perform. Rather, he mainly attributes performance to genetics – smart people marry other smart people and have smart children.

So, by the logic of Professor Connor’s argument, if you do not go to university it really isn’t because you suffer any disadvantage (including, for example, substandard school facilities), it is because your parents are stupid and you are too.

There are any number of possible ripostes to this nonsense. But one is that if the top echelons of society are there just by virtue of their superior genes, why do they also lobby so hard to ensure their offspring have preferential access to the richest schools? And that those schools maintain their disproportionate access to state-funded resources, including sports facilities?

Could it be that they regard state (in other words public) support as vital to their reproduction as a privileged class? I suspect they do, and I suspect they are right.

The question begged for the rest of is: why do we put up with it?

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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