Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 50)



  40.  Finally on the national stadium, there is a reference in the briefing note to a Belfast United Football Club somewhere down the line. At one stage there was press speculation about Wimbledon moving over to Belfast. That would create a week-in-week-out occupancy of the stadium that no other sport could do. What would your comments be on the attitudes of some people in Northern Ireland football who would oppose that in terms of the current structures? Is there a need to be very ambitious here? Also, is not a big football club the only real way of attracting any private money into the development of a national stadium?
  (Mr Allen)  I am not so sure about the last comment, but what I would say is we have to look at it in a structured fashion. I think the difficulty we had in the past was that some people ran off and tried to bring in Wimbledon Football Club to Northern Ireland without any evidence that they wanted to come. The first thing they should have done is asked Wimbledon if they really wanted to come. If I was the Chairman of the Football Association and I had a very very successful organisation, would I want to break it up? Would I want Wimbledon to be playing in Belfast and Chelsea playing in Dublin and Manchester United playing in France? The answer is no. It is a dream, but a poor one at that. If we had the right facility and the right opportunity arrived, then I think there would be a better opportunity, but I think rugby have led the way in this one. People said team Ulster would not happen and some people from the other side of the water used to taunt us saying, "Ah, but you're really a provincial team playing at club standard." So what? We are the European champions and we have put a team together to win it. I think there are great opportunities for soccer. We do not know what is going to happen in the future in soccer, but for certain there are going to be changes and would it not be great if we had a team Ulster, for instance, playing in the European Cup? That is possible and would bring great crowds. It would bring great crowds to Northern Ireland if, for instance, there was the opportunity of a European league at a high standard where team Ulster could get into it, even though it may be at second or third division, but at least we would be in there and once we are in there we can score our prize.

  41.  Finally, when the Northern Ireland Act comes fully into force sport will become the responsibility of the Assembly. What effect do you anticipate this having on your operations and on your access to funding?
  (Mr Allen)  I think that will be excellent. I think everyone would agree—and I say it with no disrespect to the Ministers who have come across from England to administer from Westminster, I think they have done a fantastic job for us, they have put their heart and soul into doing it—that there is no better person than a home person who has got devotion and is going to be here for a much longer period of time, perhaps for a lifetime and I think we would all welcome that. I think we will see a Minister for Sport who will have a very strong interest in sport and who will make a lot of things happen and I think we are all looking forward to that as being a part of the jigsaw that is going to bring Northern Ireland together as a team both politically and sport wise.
  (Mr McCartan)  I am not wishing to enter into areas of expertise where you work, but the Sports Council in Northern Ireland, like the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, like the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation in the south, like some 13 other European countries, would very much like to see the name "sport" reflected in the title of the new department which currently stands as "CAL", which in itself has significant implications for Northern Ireland, but we believe it would be much better to be called "CLAS" (Culture, Leisure, Arts and Sports) and we believe this would enable us to maximise the benefit on an east-west axis, to maximise the benefit on a north-south axis and would also be reflective of the fact that 78 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland believe that sport is of value and can significantly contribute to the social, economic and political development of the country.

Chairman:  I said at the beginning that if there were individual supplementary questions which people wanted to ask, we would have an opportunity to do so before we closed. You have been extremely patient with us and we will try and avoid prolonging this too much, but I did want to give everybody the opportunity, should they wish, to ask a supplementary and I have quite good ground to suppose Mr Donaldson wants to ask one.

Mr Donaldson

  42.  Gentlemen, on the sports stadium again, I would very much like to see that sort of venture taking place in Northern Ireland. You did mention in the briefing note that you provided to us on the idea of a sports stadium the current state of play and the fact that there had been a tentative offer of land on the Belfast Lough foreshore made by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. There were also tentative re-location plans for the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society which, as I understand it, are now looking towards Blaris rather than Tillisburn. Do you have any thoughts on the location? Obviously you would want such a stadium to be in a reasonably centralised location where accessibility is obviously a high priority. Does the Sports Council have any views as to location?
  (Mr Allen)  The one-stop shop is the best shop you can have. In Belfast we are talking about a railway station within a few hundred yards, City Airport is a couple of miles away and we are talking about a boat that stops outside. Scotland is a great supporter of Northern Ireland, and I think a lot of them will want to come not only to our sporting occasions but to our entertainment occasions. Northern Ireland is a small place and I know everybody is always asking me what is going to happen in my constituency and so on, but when you are handling major events I think you have to have the capital and I think we would lose out. I do not think we are totally sold on Belfast, but if there is the land there and it is easy for parking as well —— We have a big industrial area around that and these facilities are closed in the evenings and closed at the weekends so there is the opportunity for massive parking. I do not rule anything out.

  43.  Again just a supplementary on the issue of the 50m pool that you talked about. Can you recall approximately what the additional costings would have been to have made the new pool in Lisburn a 50m pool? Do you have any idea of what the costings involved would have been?
  (Mr O'Connor)  I have a feeling it was around the £3 million mark. We are not talking about the one that would host the European championships, we are talking about a modest pool with leisure facilities attached to it. The additional cost was around about the £3 million mark to do it to a good quality with around about 500 seats, with the ability maybe on occasion to add seats in to top up that.

  44.  Have the Sports Council had any discussions with the RUAS about their plans? It looks like they have significant plans in terms of leisure facilities in addition to what they are proposing to do with their showground-type situation. They are looking at some kind of exhibition centre and some kind of facility that would replace the King's Hall facility for large concerts and so on. It strikes me that if there is the prospect of significant private expenditure there and the facility to accommodate large numbers of people then there might just be the possibility of linking that in in some way to the idea of a national stadium.
  (Mr Allen)  There is no doubt that the Royal Agricultural Society have been extremely successful in the past and have hosted many many successful sporting occasions and entertainment ones as well as agricultural. I think there is a big possibility that they would be involved at least in the management of a national facility because we will need somebody to manage it and I think that is one area we would be talking about in the same way as we tried to with the indoor arena, but they had the view that they would like to go a different way. The door is not closed.


  45.  I want to ask you to provide us with some data after the event. I will come on in a moment to the transfer from DENI of capital sports funding to you. In that context you gave us a list of capital grants paid by the Department of Education between 1974 and 1998 which appear in your Annual Report which you summarise in the briefing note on capital funding and Mr McWalter remarked on the fact that the £8 million in 1982/83 was obviously in 1982/83 money. I think it would be helpful if you could rework that table so that it was in a common currency. I think it would be helpful to our report if that was so. When one gets into percentages there is a hazard that the verbals that surround the percentages get the prepositions wrong and I have a suspicion that when Mr O'Connor was answering Mr Hunter's question and he described the £30 million and then he said we get 50 per cent on top of that as part of those schemes and then we get some more from other facilities that are being built in, he meant another 100 per cent rather than 50 per cent. I think the sensible thing would be if we could have a note on how that funding has built up overall. On the transfer from DENI to yourselves, paragraph 5 in the briefing note on capital funding says that the remit was passed in 1994 and a meagre £100,000 budget passed with it. Was that a budget of spending or was that a budget of administration?
  (Mr Allen)  It was supposed to be spending, Mr Chairman. So you can see you cannot get too much for £100,000.

  46.  No you cannot, but although that happened in 1994, the capital figures handed over to you in the chart in the Sports Council Annual Report, showed a figure of £900,000 in 1995/96 and £321,000 in 1996/97 and we only get down to 163 and 118 in the current year right at the end of that period. Is that because they were operating on a three-year basis?
  (Mr O'Connor)  The figure you see there was money actually spent by the Department themselves and it was projects which they had been funding prior to when they handed it over to us and they wished to complete them themselves. They did it out of their own funding.

  47.  That makes the figures considerably more transparent. The last question I want to ask relates to briefing note entitled "Sport is Good News and Value for Money". It is the last four lines in that note where it says, "Unlike charities, Heritage, New Opportunities and Millennium which have needs based formulae, the Lottery Sports Fund is based on the inadequate 2.8 per cent formula and provides NI with £6 million per annum, a significant element of which is predetermined to meet government commitments." Since the whole principle of the Lottery is that additionality does not apply, what are the government commitments you are meeting?
  (Mr O'Connor)  The United Kingdom Sports Institute is an example of where we have had to contribute both to the UK aspect of it and to our own. We are not suggesting that that is not a worthwhile cause, but we had no debate or discussion about it, we were told. We also had to make our contribution to the Millennium Fund and that was £15 million, so we had to make our 2.8 per cent to that. There is also a "request" to support the funding of the safety in sports grounds. There are a number of projects which are decided outside and this would not matter if we had a sizable budget, but when it is very small, every time that happens it is not an equal transfer because of the percentages that you mentioned earlier on.

  48.  I do understand how the figures were made up, but it would be sensible if we had a note which indicated what government commitments you have been required to meet and how far—I want to probe the words "government commitments" slightly—those were commitments which were entered into on a national basis and each of the relevant sports bodies agreed that they would be making a contribution, which is a slightly different thing from it being a government commitment.
  (Mr O'Connor)  It would be all of them.

Chairman:  The note can make that clear. If there are no other supplementary questions on the national stadium let me just ask Mr McCabe to ask a final question.

Mr McCabe

  49.  Despite all the issues about funding that we have been listening to this morning, could you give us your overall assessment of the health of sport in Northern Ireland at all levels at the present time?
  (Mr Allen)  I think under the difficult circumstances we had, sport has been very, very healthy and successful. Participation in sport in Northern Ireland was low. It has increased dramatically over the last couple of years and that takes money and we are encouraging clubs and bodies to increase that in order to give every young person an opportunity. They are great demands. I think they are finding themselves totally stretched and so we need to have funding to help them in administration, in coaching and other areas.
  (Mr McCartan)  It is very difficult to give an overall description of how sport is going because it is going better in some areas than others. But if we were to look at a collective or consolidated view and if we were to look at the level of participation which is a key factor, participation has increased by 15 per cent within the last decade, and that is despite the fact the grant made through the Sports Council has actually declined. What I would suggest to you, gentlemen, is that we put that money to very good use. Female sport has increased by 14 per cent and that is reflective of the various policy strategies and programmes that we have adopted along with our partners in the governing bodies, districts councils, Education and Library Boards. In terms of measurement of performance at major international games, well, the major international games we utilize to measure that performance is the Commonwealth Games. Two Commonwealth Games ago, Northern Ireland had its highest achievement ever, winning a sum total of 11 medals. Unfortunately this year we won five and that is indicative of a complete absence of national training facilities because the rest of the world is moving forward, our athletes are just standing still and we need to address the capacity which is required to grow our athletics through international athletes. In terms of disability sport, we have progressed significantly and our disabled athletes, in terms of participation and excellence, have increased significantly.


  50.  I said at the beginning that the fact that we have come back for the session that we have asked you to was an index of the quality of the dinner you give us and the interest you gave us and it is a further index of the manner in which you presented yourselves. This is without question the longest session this Committee has ever done. You should certainly regard yourself as heroes in terms of having sustained it, though I acknowledge the questions were spread over four people rather than a single person. It has been extremely worthwhile and I hope you genuinely will feel it is a compliment that you have been made to work so hard because of the influence that you all had on a subject for which you are responsible.
  (Mr Allen)  Thank you very much. We are delighted to have been given the opportunity of promoting sport within Northern Ireland and if this is the longest duration then we have to say we are delighted and honoured at that and we look forward to meeting again in the future. Thank you very much for giving us your time.


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