Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has said that the huge amounts of money being invested in high-level sport leaves it vulnerable to allegations of sportswashing.
Reacting to the shock news that the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have formed a partnership with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF) – which funds the Liv Golf tour – Mr Martin said he was concerned as a sports fan about the huge sums being put into sports including football and golf. Saudi Arabia’s PIF also owns Newcastle United football club.
“I think sport in general, and sporting organisations in general, should be wary of the enormous amounts of funds and money that’s going into sports at this level, which leaves it vulnerable to the allegation of sportswashing,” he said.
“How sustainable all of that is for sport into the future, I would question that. It was the same with Russian oligarchs as well, using extraordinary sums of money to purchase football clubs.
“I have concerns about that generally, as a person who’s very passionate about sport at the end of the day, because of the need for sport to be dependent to keep to its values and keep to its principles.”
Mr Martin said Irish trade with Saudi Arabia is “limited enough” and the Irish Government had raised the issue of human rights at ambassadorial level on “an ongoing basis”.
He also denied a claim by Irish golfer Padraig Harrington that the Irish Government allowed the sale of military hardware to the Saudis.
The Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe told the Claire Byrne Show that the use of sportswashing as an instrument of foreign policy made him “uncomfortable”.
He added: “I do think governments are going to need to be sensitive to the fact in the time ahead that sporting decisions are not used as conduits of foreign policy or to say things about countries. I have a sense that we’re approaching that line.”
Minister of State for Sport Thomas Byrne said the implications of the deal were not yet clear. “While this is primarily a matter for the organisations themselves, it is always important to balance the need for investment in sport with maintaining the core values of sport and recognising the reach and impact that sport can have in the wider world”.
“While large external investment in a sport, or in specific clubs, can be very welcome it also needs to be balanced against the long-term sustainability of the sport or the club,” he told The Irish Times.
He said elite level sports should not “lose sight” of their connection to grassroots and “how their behaviours and decisions impact on young people and children”.
The Department of Enterprise rejected the only application for a license to export military goods to Saudi Arabia that had been made in the last five years.
It said that no licenses were issued for exports of military goods to the desert kingdom in the same period. During that time it had issued 181 licenses for exports of so-called dual use goods, which can have military or civilian applications.
“These licenses were mainly for standard business ICT products, both hardware and software, eg data storage, networking, cybersecurity, that incorporate strong encryption for security purposes and are therefore subject to EU export controls,” a spokesman said.
“Over the same period, the Department denied 25 applications for dual-use export licenses, and one application for a military export license for end use in Saudi Arabia”.
Asked if any rejections were linked to human rights concerns, the Department said it does not disclose the reasons for denying a licence.