‘These are my principles. But if you don’t like them, I have other ones’, as the old jest goes.
There is a marked echo of that old Groucho Marx gag in the current campaign over plans to hold the America’s Cup yachting spectacular in Cork in 2024.
The America’s Cup is said to be the third-most-prestigious event in international sport, after the Olympic Games and the football World Cup. Minister Simon Coveney is hell bent on securing the competition for his native city.
Although hosting the event will cost the country an arm and a leg, Coveney has been eagerly spinning the story to his cabinet colleagues that this will be money well spent, that the payoff will justify the investment, and that casting bread on the waters of Cork harbour will return a yield beyond belief. From an initial list of applicants of over 30, lucky Ireland remains in the running with only a dozen credible contenders left, he disclosed.
Sad to say, Coveney’s pleadings were given a cool reception within government.
Wiser heads decided it would be more prudent to appoint a team of consultants to examine the proposal for projected costs and benefits. The consultants, EY, came back with two draft reports.
The first report said that the project would cost the Government ‘just over €600 million’, and that the outcome would be net negative to the State, meaning there would be no financial benefits from hosting the event. That seemed to have decided the matter once and for all.
But then, EY came back with a second draft report. This time, the estimated cost was cut back to some €200 million, and now the project would be net positive for the country.
As one might expect, the mandarins in the Department of Sport – the entity that would eventually have to foot the bill – were less than impressed with the conflicting figures they were being given. If figures could change so dramatically, they reasoned, how could they have confidence in anything they were being told?
Minister for Sport Catherine Martin told the race organisers, who had been pressing hard for an immediate decision, that the Government would need another six months to consider the proposals before making up its mind.
All of this is being played out against a background of a beleaguered Minister Coveney seeking to rescue his reputation by landing a Big Fish, and there are fewer fish bigger than the America’s cup. His ham-fisted handling of the Zappone affair would soon be forgotten if he was able to bask in the glow of bringing yachting glory to Cork.
In terms of political leverage, Coveney’s Cork origins – one with those of both his Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure, Michael McGrath – would be seen as crucial in swinging Cabinet approval behind the Cork bid.
But these are not normal times.
Micheál Martin might have gone out of his way to pull Mr Coveney out of the quicksands of the Zappone affair, but that does not mean he will give his backing to a possible multi-million-euro loss on what most would regard as a pastime of the elite. And the Minister for Sport has made no secret of her cold-eyed doubts over the whole project.
Mr Coveney has good reason to rue his ill-judged attempt to secure a prestige New York appointment for his erstwhile Cabinet colleague.
Meanwhile, the lady herself, despite being in receipt of a handsome Irish Government pension, remains aloof from censure, debate or explanation of her presumption of entitlement to State favours.