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National Sporting Facilities: Motion
12 October 2005

Dr. Henry: I thank the Minister for coming before the House tonight and for his speech. While the Fianna Fáil motion is most interesting and full of congratulations for the Government, I was particularly interested in the last part which asked the Government "to continue to place a special emphasis on sport and recreation as this will have significant benefits in fostering healthier lifestyles and stronger communities". Before I address some points made in the amendment, I want to know if, given the congratulations being given to the Government for what it has done for sport, it will also accept congratulations for some statistics drawn up since it took office.

When the Government was first elected in 1997, the level of obesity in Irish adults was less than 10%. By the time the Government was re-elected in 2002, it was more than 13% and is now approximately 16%. The Taoiseach has promised that the next election will not be until the end of the Government's full term. If we continue to eat as we do and take as little exercise as at present, by then we could well be at approximately 17%. We could be getting near to where the Tánaiste wants us to be, namely, nearer to Boston than to Berlin. Boston has an obesity rate of 30%, while it is just over 10% in Berlin. I presume this is part of the Government's sports policies' success story.

The situation with children is even worse. There has been a doubling in the incidence of obesity in the past ten years, during most of which the Government has had what Fianna Fáil describes as its excellent sports policies in operation. They have been an absolute disaster. We now have a generation of people which is less fit than ever before. It is terribly serious.

I attended a lecture given by Professor John Nolan last night in Trinity College. He is professor of endocrinology in St. James's Hospital. I will admit to an interest as I am president of the Diabetes Federation of Ireland. He spoke about the increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes in this country which is directly associated with obesity and lifestyle. The rates here are shooting through the stratosphere. We are doing so well we will soon be top of the league. It is particularly serious that we now have more children with type 2 diabetes in this country than with type 1 diabetes. When I studied medicine, well over a generation ago, I never saw a child with type 2 diabetes.

Senator Feighan rightly pointed out the problems with junk food at school. As children of this generation get so little exercise and eat such unhealthy food so frequently, we are allowing them to grow into human beings without anything like the hopes of a lifestyle like ours. Can Members imagine being obliged to begin injecting oneself with insulin when one is eight, ten or 12 years of age? Who wants that for any of our children? It is appalling.

The Fine Gael Members were correct to include the point about 300,000 of our children being overweight or obese and the lack of provision for physical exercise facilities in our schools in their amendment. Former Senator Therese Ridge used to talk about a school in west Dublin which has been in existence for 20 years but still has no sports hall. What sort of planning subjects children to growing up in an atmosphere like that? We must stop the sort of congratulation expressed in this motion because it is entirely wrong. I wish more Members had attended Professor Nolan's lecture last night with Senator Browne and myself to listen to what he had to say because it was profoundly depressing.

We should also show some common sense about about particular matters. I was very disappointed to hear the Minister state that two of the most successful sports in Ireland are horse and greyhound racing. I have been involved with both, but unless one is walking the greyhounds, riding the horses, mucking them out or something similar, one is not getting much exercise. Shuffling around in the stands at Leopardstown or Shelbourne park does not provide one with a great deal of exercise. In fact, smart new dining rooms where one can sit, eat, drink and fatten up have now been installed. To describe these activities as two of the most successful sports in Ireland is somewhat rich.

I accepted the Minister's point when he went on to refer to these past times as important industries. I am delighted for their success and they bring in a considerable amount of money. There have been a great deal of improvements in prize money, in the facilities of the various racecourses and so forth. That has been worthwhile because a day out at the races is now much more pleasant than it was for decades, when one stood freezing to death in the cold in Mallow. It is now the smart Cork racecourse where one can go and have a really good time and partake of good food and drink. Nevertheless, much of the motion's content is out of tune with what is required to give us significant benefits in fostering healthier lifestyles. It is ridiculous.

Those Members supporting the amendment were quite right to raise the issue of walking in Ireland. This is a very difficult problem, particularly in rural areas, because we have a great number of one-off housing developments being built with no access to the local town by way of a footpath. This was first brought to my attention by representatives of the Irish College of General Practitioners who suggested to me that when people in these housing areas get older, they will be incapable of walking as far as their local shop and will become extremely isolated. This assumes that local shops will still exist, thanks to all the marvellous new shopping centres under construction. The situation regarding people who try to get exercise by risking their lives walking around rural Ireland is also important.

We have done some great things and I wish they had been included in this motion. The initiatives taken with Coillte to enable people to walk on Slí na Sláinte walking routes was fantastic. This is the sort of thing we need to do if we wish to encourage a healthier lifestyle, not congratulating ourselves on the amount of money that has been given to the horse racing industry. I regret the tone taken in this motion. This situation is so serious that it should not be a party political issue. We really are in a dire situation.

When I suggested a halving of the portion size of the puddings in the Oireachtas restaurant, I got into terrible trouble, particularly with my friend Senator Norris, who cried "shame" at the suggestion. The Leader thought it was a good idea. If we are to begin to really examine what sport and exercise can do for the health of the people, we need a little less self-congratulation and a little more effort to tackle what is an incredibly serious health issue which will cost us a fortune.

Professor Nolan ended his lecture last night with a cartoon. Members will be aware that it is difficult nowadays to get children to go outside and take exercise as they love being inside playing with PlayStations, computers and other gadgets. In the cartoon, the mother stood over her child as he played on his computer and asked him to go outside and get some exercise. He replied that he would, if she gave him a laptop computer.

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