It’s unusual that the name Seán Kelly should be famous twice over in the context of Irish sport.
One, the cyclist, is a legend of arguably the toughest non-contact sport in the world; the other has secured his place in history as the man who did most to ensure the temporary opening up of Croke Park to rugby and soccer.
The Kerry Kelly is also from farming stock, being born in all the ‘Ks’: Knoackataggle, Kilcummin, Killarney. This Friday he is seeking election to the European Parliament, running for Fine Gael (he’s a first cousin of Enda Kenny’s wife Fionnuala) in the ‘South’ constituency, which is basically Munster minus Clare.
The 57-year-old father-of-four will be hoping for a similar result to that which saw him elected as GAA President in 2003 by a landslide majority.
After a few near-misses, I finally caught up with him in the Granville Hotel last Friday during the latest of a string of hectic campaign trips east, and all other directions, from his home in Gortroe. He was interested in making some points specifically about sport and politics that haven’t been aired in these, or most other elections.
A teacher by profession, GAA administrator (for almost 35 years) by vocation, and prospective politician by ambition, Kelly’s landmark Croke Park tenure won him a clutch of awards; though as his memoir ‘Rule 42 and All That’ relates, he’s aware his personal high profile wasn’t to everyone’s liking. That and his determination to take on the establishment as it existed within Croker’s corridors of power.
He’s found a few foes in politics already. “He’s a celebrity candidate,” Kelly’s running-‘mate’, sitting MEP Colm Burke, smarted the other week. The Corkman, who came in as a ‘sub’ when Simon Coveney decided to come home two years ago, added: “Seán was a great president of the GAA but this is not a game.”
However, Kelly, who unsuccessfully stood for election to Kerry Co Council for FG in 1991, would contend that attitude crystalises where the EU has failed in trying to make friends and influence people. The way he sees it sport is a perfect means towards removing some of the apathy and cynicism about what goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg.
“The one thing I am concerned about with regard to the European Union is that they haven’t got what they would call a ‘competence’ in sport,” says the man who was inaugural executive chairman of the Irish Institute of Sport (an agency set up to support elite athletes, now under the auspices of John Treacy’s ISC) for two years until last July.
“I was over there in the parliament and they have a Culture and Education Committee, but as far as I could see there’s scant realisation of the immense impact sport has on society across all member states. I think the political value of sport needs to be recognised and funded. It has a huge role to play in getting women involved in sport, people with disabilities involved in sport, and in tackling huge health problems… and therefore there should be far more funding available for it.” (He was instrumental in staging the Special Olympics in Croke Park in 2003, saying “the idea that we could do a little something for those people far outweighed anything it cost the GAA in money”: €2.5m.)
Kelly elaborated: “People talk about a ‘disconnect’ between the EU and the people. Well if you don’t recognise sport and the importance of sport you’re going to automatically have a disconnect, as the vast majority of people are in some way or another connected with sport,” he reasoned.
Putting a greater emphasis on the social and economic benefits accruing from sport would be “a double gain from an EU point of view,” he asserts, by “having that relevance to people and putting money where it’s most valuable.” Also, “there’s an awful lot of employment through sport, from full-time coaches, backroom staff, gear manufacturers and suppliers, sports shops. A lot of sectors and industries are dependant on sport and that’s not always appreciated,” he says.
“So that’s one of my main ideals, to secure that prioritisation of sport, because without it communities would basically fall apart and by building things around sport, broadening it out so that you have multi-functional facilities that can cater for the entire community, you can really help to improve people’s quality of life and I’d be urging the EU, if I’m elected, to go down that route to a much greater extent.” Sounds politically correct to me.