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Declan Bogue: Sports funding cuts have human side our absent politicians fail to grasp

 

End of road: Ulster Council staff who lost their jobs, along with permanent members of Ulster Council, on their final day at work
End of road: Ulster Council staff who lost their jobs, along with permanent members of Ulster Council, on their final day at work
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Last February was the highlight of Karol McQuade's life in Gaelic Games. Coming on in as an injury-time substitute for his club Moy Tír Na nÓg, he was on the Croke Park pitch when the final whistle blew and confirmed the Tyrone club as All-Ireland Intermediate club champions.

Sean Cavanagh's recently-published autobiography is peppered with references to his next door neighbour and friend McQuade, who had the entertaining habit of keeping his illustrious neighbour's feet on the ground no matter the occasion.

On Thursday, McQuade was one of 23 coaches from across Northern Ireland who gathered at the offices of the Ulster Council for a meal and to hand over their laptop computers, hula hoops, balls and hurls. All 23 were made redundant when funding for the Curriculum Sports Programme - a physical literacy course previously funded by Stormont and delivered through the GAA and the Irish Football Association - finally ran out.

"This is the third time we have been given a six-month recess and this time it was really on the cards. The department was coming back every time and saying there was no money for it, and that's it," said McQuade.

"Still, it's hard to take, but what do you do? The Government is in complete disarray at the minute."

Imagine being made redundant with less than two weeks before Christmas. Imagine it with a wife, three children - the youngest just four months old - and a mortgage.

McQuade has been with the Ulster Council since the scheme began in 2007. He was coaching a similar programme through the Tyrone county board for five years before that. As he said himself: "This is all I have ever done.

"I am thinking of going across the water to do teaching. I can't get in here, it's just with the three kids at home it is not going to be easy," he continued.

While he may be lucky enough to get a teaching placement at home, the course is in Carlisle.

This desperate situation is just the latest collateral damage caused by the Stormont Executive sitting in limbo.

Local politicians met with representatives of the Ulster Council. The case was put forward and all parties supported it.

"They say that if they were in Government they would sign off on it and their minister would keep it going because they see the benefits of the project," said Jimmy Darragh, line manager of all the coaches made redundant.

Ultimately though, they cannot make that decision.

Darragh and Ulster Council vice-president Oliver Galligan recently visited Permanent Secretary Derek Baker who is the senior civil servant left in charge of these matters. The funding had actually ended on October 31 but the Ulster Council continued to fund the scheme in the hope they could find a resolution.

"He told us they had looked at the budgets and additional money slushing around, where they were going to allocate it and he told us he did not have additional funding for the Curriculum Sports Programme," explained Darragh.

It's worth noting the figures here. Ulster Council coaches went into 346 schools across Northern Ireland. This year, that amounted to 9,208 boys and 9,031 girls they were delivering coaching to.

Another factor is that it's far from an exclusively Gaelic games programme.

"We cover everything. The only thing we cannot cover is swimming," said Michelle O'Connor of Kildress, a mother of two who is also losing her job.

"Athletics, dance, gymnastics… We are fundamental coaches so we cover the entire curriculum. Even though we are GAA, we cover everything.

"With the gymnastics, we teach them the basic skills of every sport. They could go on to play basketball or whatever, it was never sports-specific."

While this leaves a void in the holistic education of children, it would be foolish to expect that teachers - poorly motivated through low pay and swamped by homework as it is - would pick up the slack.

"Some schools, they might not have many classes and it is about getting it timetabled in, and that time out of class," O'Connor explained. "There might not be parents who are minded towards exercise. There can always be another maths class added in, and then the only exercise that children can get is the short lunch break. But it is not enough."

Jimmy Darragh described how things have been over the last few weeks, where the Ulster Council have been going through the redundancy process as a matter of course, all the while hoping and canvassing for a change in circumstances.

"Honest to God it is tearing the whole place apart, the fact that this is happening. And particularly at this time of the year as well, makes it even worse," said Darragh.

"The bottom line is that we created a programme and achieved what we set out to achieve and more.

"But, without a Government in place and without a minister making that decision, they can't make the decision to put money our way.

They see other priorities within budget and unfortunately, they won't fund it any further."

The nature of the funding was always dicey, but it didn't stop some from being attracted to the job for wholesome reasons.

Kevin Curran of Tullysaran, just outside Armagh City had worked in recruitment for decades, but his passion was coaching children and so, at the age of 46 and with a wife and two children at home, applied and got a job with the Ulster Council last December.

"To be honest, I just took one of those 'I am sick of doing this' moments. Given that I am heavily involved in my local club, youth officer and all that, and chairman of the Board of Governors in the local school in Tullysaran, I just thought I would love to give this a go," said Curran.

"It is a change of scenery for me, but it was an unbelievable year working with the kids.

"You take the recruitment side of things, it is quite sedentary, but it is a sales job and your boss is asking you, 'how much money are you making for the company?'

"Whereas this job is all about working with young kids. Getting them to appreciate their bodies and the building blocks of agility, balance, co-ordination."

He added: "I see young kids who can't stand up straight in P1 and by week five or six they are flying through hula hoops, able to balance, it is hard to put that into words, that sense of achievement.

"You are getting the kids to express themselves and it is an unbelievably fulfilling role."

Doing a good job, offering essential services is no longer enough to guarantee your job.

Once again, our politicians have failed us.

698 days since they last sat in Stormont.

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