Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 21 May 2001 (continued)

12.45 pm

The Committee has taken a particular interest in the allocation of the health and safety funds that were made available under the safe sports grounds scheme. On 4 December 2000, the Minister told the Assembly that an estimated £25 million was required to upgrade our existing stadiums. As he said, £5·3 million has been secured so far to undertake essential work. The Minister indicated that he would like to work on this issue. What plans has he and the Department prepared to ensure that health and safety funding will continue after the initial phase?

The Committee hopes to visit a number of stadiums in Scotland this year to look at work carried out as a result of recommendations in the Taylor report. As Members know, a great deal of excellent work has been completed using Football Trust money. This is relevant to our situation, and the Committee hopes to explore this area in particular.

The Minister is already on record as having indicated the Department's intention to bring forward legislation to implement the Taylor report. When is this likely to be programmed?

The overwhelming response from the report was that there was a need for one governing body to take forward senior football. It appears that the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Irish Football League (IFL) fail to work together, and the perceived degree of conflict between them contributes to the negative image of soccer here. For example, we have seen that a sole central authority in the South - joining the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the Eircom league - has benefited football in terms of increased crowds and better performances in Europe.

Although the primary aim of the Department's strategy will be the improvement of the Irish league, the ultimate by-product will be the production of a better international team. Will the Minister tell us whether the Department intends to create a unified governing body for soccer? He referred to it as a major management issue in the future, but is he predisposed to go in that direction?

Two important areas highlighted by the report are youth development and community involvement. It is vital to attract young people to the game and provide them with the opportunity to develop their skills. The report highlighted the sense of loss that results from young players being lured away to play for clubs in the United Kingdom, which are perceived as offering better opportunities. Therefore it is essential that the Department's strategy addresses the issues of how the game in Northern Ireland can benefit from the development of our talented young players, and how they can be provided with opportunities.

I was glad to hear the Minister state that the advisory panel has focused on a youth development policy. Would he consider, as part of the strategy, similar coaching techniques to those employed by the Belfast Giants? Many Members may be familiar with this. The Giants hire professional players to coach young people, and this, incidentally, is an excellent way of establishing the sport here. They appear to be having some success already.

This coaching system works in two ways. Young players have the privilege of being coached by someone they admire greatly, and aspire to be like, and the ice hockey players are contributing to the community. The Committee was impressed when, during a recent public session, it heard evidence from the organisers of the Giants about how they went about their training. Perhaps we should be learning from good practice where it exists.

The area of community involvement is difficult. However, it is valid for the success of the game to establish links and positive loyalties with the community.

Of those questioned for the report, 62% rated the image of soccer in Northern Ireland as "quite" or "very poor," and only 14% thought that it was "quite good".

Media coverage appears to be a big issue that needs to be addressed. I am again heartened that the advisory panel has focused on that as a major issue. Has the Minister had any discussions with the television companies about the comments that were made during the preparation of the final report? Such discussions might influence issues even before the advisory panel completes its work.

Unfortunately, media coverage often includes images of sectarianism and hooliganism. While there is no doubt that they come from a small core of people, sectarianism and hooliganism exist at club and international level. The perception, from the report, is that those factors are responsible for alienating people, especially family groups, from the game.

The Committee recognises and applauds the good work of the IFA in tackling this problem at international level. The Minister has been forthright in his condemnation of the sectarian behaviour. He also said that he will examine the need for legislation to deal specifically with the problem as part of the soccer strategy.

The Committee looks forward to being consulted on the draft strategy at an early date. I look forward to hearing the views of other Members. I support the motion.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I must leave the Chamber to attend a Committee meeting. I believe that it is now protocol for Members to indicate that. I will, however, be monitoring the responses given.

Mr Hussey:

I too endorse the strategy. During the drafting of the strategy, although the major tendency was to look at problems at a senior level, I welcomed the involvement of representatives of clubs at junior, intermediate and youth levels in the consultation process to introduce a forward strategy.

Although I welcome the Minister's statement, I seek some reassurance. Mention has rightly been made of youth development. I am sure that the Minister realises that a tremendous amount of youth development in Association Football takes place through the junior and intermediate clubs. Indeed - and I respond to the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure - tremendous community involvement is generated via the localised set-ups at the lower levels.

I seek assurance from the Minister that the taking forward of the strategy will involve junior and intermediate clubs, and the youth wings, in the strategy's implementation and the provision of the necessary funding, to assist clubs at the lower levels in improving the standards of play and upgrading facilities.

Mr Hilditch:

I support the motion. I thank the Minister for bringing this issue before the Assembly. I welcome the opportunity to note the report and to highlight a number of important issues on the subject.

This debate comes on the back of what was probably one of the most successful days for local soccer in the past 30 years - the recent Irish Cup final, when everything that is good in soccer was highlighted - [Interruption]

A Member:

Except the result.

Mr Hilditch:

- except the result.

The football fraternity eagerly awaits the final report and the recommendations that it will contain. Can the Minister confirm that we are still on course for the soccer strategy to be in place by the autumn?

There was a degree of disappointment that the strategy could not be put in place by the close of this season to allow for some forward planning. However, everyone involved in the game appreciates the depth of consultation that was required. It was probably best not to be rushed; the important thing is to get the end product right.

The 'Creating a Soccer Strategy for Northern Ireland - views of the stakeholders' report is a crucial part of the process and must be welcomed. I can identify with many of the issues raised concerning matters over the past 20 years, as I have had various responsibilities as a player, coach, referee, paying spectator and, currently, an administrator.

The report is comprehensive and covers all levels of soccer and the key stakeholders in the game. The only criticism of the process is the contribution of some members of the advisory panel, and they have been made aware of the figures. Some members who were afforded a place on the panel may find participation particularly difficult because of their cross-channel commitments to the game. However, the majority of panel members should be praised for their work, and those who took part in the conference workshop in Newcastle should also be praised. It provided an opportunity for people involved in soccer to get together in an intense environment to give their honest assessment of the failures in the sport. At the end of the three days honesty prevailed, even among those who had gone to Newcastle to defend their organisations and policies over the years. The "look at us and how great we are" mentality was put to bed, and views which, in the past, had gone unheard were taken on board.

The main part of the research and the matters on which we should be concentrating are contained in part three of the report, entitled 'The Emerging Issues'. These are listed in bullet points. Although it has been difficult to prioritise them, they are listed in order of importance - finance, facilities, structure, youth development, community involvement, image, sectarianism and hooliganism. Many of these issues are interlinked. At the top of the list is finance, which is also the common denominator of the other emerging issues. Although it is not within the scope of the research remit to investigate and report on the financial state of Irish League clubs or any other part of the structure of football in Northern Ireland, it might have been prudent to do so, as that would have given us a real insight into the problems facing us.

The Government may provide financial assistance to help with health and safety and other matters, but no one expects Government handouts just to keep clubs solvent. However, the Assembly should know of some factors which explain why many senior clubs find themselves in their current positions. A typical first division club, with a fortnightly gate of between £200 and £300, is left with £25 to £30 after match expenses. That is only for match day. The club then has to find players' wages, ground rent, administration costs and electricity charges, et cetera. On top of that is the burning issue of rates. The rates bill for a typical first division club is over £4,000. That is only for the football side; it has nothing to do with the social club. A club that finds it impossible to meet its weekly commitments is charged rates at a commercial level. A team that plays its last home game on 21 April and does not play another until the middle of August has no income coming through its gates for a quarter of the year.

I call upon the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Minister of Finance and Personnel to deal with this situation immediately. If commercial property is not used, it should not be charged accordingly. Other sources of income are social clubs and sponsorships. A home sponsored game every fortnight would raise between £200 and £300 a game. Social clubs are things of the past. They were successful in the 1970s and 1980s when people were looking for a secure environment in which to socialise. Times and trends have changed, and people are now looking for social entertainment with much more on offer. Time has stood still for many social clubs. They find it difficult to pay their way, never mind contribute finance to offset the cost of sustaining soccer.

It is acknowledged that, in addition to the Government, all stakeholders in soccer should deal with reality when it comes to finance. Most clubs are now gearing themselves to live within their means. I urge the Assembly also to play its part.

There is much to be said on the emerging issues. The report sets them out adequately, and they should be taken on board in time. I have highlighted only one aspect of the report, but I emphasise that there is much feeling, fervour and passion about football here. A large number of people await autumn, the finished soccer strategy, its recommendations and public consultation.

Mr McCarthy:

Once again the Assembly gives locally elected people the opportunity to debate issues that matter greatly to the people of Northern Ireland.

1.00 pm

Today the subject is football. It certainly makes a change from going over and over the old sterile arguments.

The report is informative and timely. Now that the Assembly is in place, we have a real opportunity to change, contribute to and improve football in Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party supports much of this report. We agree that competitions overwork players, who then have little or no time to improve their skills. Realistically, there should be fewer competitions.

The Alliance Party also has concerns about the structure of football in Northern Ireland, both in the Irish Football Association and the Irish Football League. Currently there is a lack of clarity in each organisation's role. Surely a single governing body would make more sense. Not only would it remove overlap in role and responsibilities, it could cut costs by streamlining staff and eliminating duplication.

Under no circumstances, however, can the Alliance Party support any question of cutting the post of the IFA community relations officer, who is doing an excellent job and very important and essential work. That must continue and be supported, and I ask the Minister today to give the Assembly a commitment that it will be so.

The Alliance Party - like the report - calls for a new stadium on neutral ground. We committed to this in the Programme for Government, and it forms part of our manifesto. It makes sense, of course, that to get the best use from any such sporting ground it must be multi- purpose. We do not want a large white elephant - even if it be on neutral ground.

Alliance also supports making available the full amount called for in the upgrading of senior clubs - the whole £20 million rather than the £6 million currently allocated. This money must only, however, be allocated as part of an overall strategy to improve grounds, quality of play and the overall experience for fans and spectators.

The Minister and other Members who spoke earlier agreed that central to improving the experience for fans is the tackling of the scourge of sectarianism. Over 90% of people in the clubs felt that sectarianism had an impact. Over 90% of people perceived to be Protestant thought that sectarianism affected football. It is seen as even more of a problem than hooliganism - and rightly so. It is a problem at international matches and at Irish League matches. It is a problem and does nothing to the credit of Northern Ireland or of football.

I welcome the Minister's commitment against sectarianism and hooliganism. It has to stop. We can tolerate it no longer. I have raised the matter with the Minister in the Assembly. I have made speeches about it, and I continue to make speeches. Extend the Football (Offences Act) 1991 to Northern Ireland. Outlaw sectarian chanting and the throwing of abuse at the pitch, at players and other fans. If the Minister is tired of hearing me say this, let him do something quickly. Only then will I be quiet.

In conclusion, football in Northern Ireland has to become a family-orientated form of entertainment, and the sooner that is brought about, the sooner we can have a thriving and well-supported football and soccer industry. That will give the whole community something to shout about together.

Mr B Hutchinson:

I welcome the motion and congratulate the Minister for bringing it forward. I do, however, feel a bit cheated. I always do feel cheated by consultants. The Minister invited consultants to Parliament Buildings. They looked at the clock and told us what time it was. We knew exactly what problems existed in soccer. What we need to do is get on with finding the means to resolve them, rather than spending large amounts of money on consultants' telling us what is wrong.

One of the best documents ever written about soccer is the Taylor report. Paragraph 59 of chapter 2 entitled 'A Better Future for Football' states

"It is not enough to aim only at the minimum measures necessary for safety. That has been, at best, the approach in the past and too often not even that standard has been achieved. What is required is the vision and the imagination to achieve a new ethos for football. Grounds should be upgraded. Attitudes should be more welcoming. The aim should be to provide more modern and comfortable accommodation, better and more varied facilities, more consultation with the supporters and more positive leadership. If such a policy is implemented it will not only improve safety. There will also be an improvement in behaviour, making crowd control easier."

We can assume that every Member, including the Minister, wants to achieve those aims. They must be the basis from which we work.

I congratulate the Minister on what he has done so far and on what the panel has achieved. However, there are many myths about. I heard what Members have said this morning. East Antrim Member David Hilditch has been involved in soccer at different levels, and he probably knows more about the administration side than I do. However, as a football supporter who goes to grounds every week, I know that people continually talk about the amount of games that are played and about how that inhibits the skills of young players. The football season in England ended on Saturday. I am not a Liverpool supporter, but Liverpool played sixty-odd games. There are four local players in the team- Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Carragher and Fowler - and I would defy anybody to tell me that they are not skilful. Those four kids played in most of the games, and we are continually told that it is wrong.

People pick up skills by playing the game at the speed that it should be played at - in a match, not on a training ground. Training ground practice is not the same as a match-day game. Players can practise things at a certain speed on the training ground, but on a match day they can bet that the opposing team will be in quickly to try to stop them from playing. The four kids from Liverpool have proved that. We must get rid of some of the myths.

Another myth is that footballers in Northern Ireland do not coach young people. Where have people been? Linfield and Dundalk football clubs are involved in the Dunfield project whereby the players coach in the community. I am sure that Alban Maginness and the Sinn Féin Member Gerry Kelly know that Cliftonville Football Club in North Belfast has received money to employ a development officer to work in the community. Many teams in Northern Ireland do not have the money to do that. Some teams have found sources to enable them to do it. Of course teams will work and coach in the community, but they must have the money to do so.

We must get rid of these perceptions and myths. People must understand what is really happening in football grounds. We must recognise that for the past thirty-odd years people have committed themselves - from the chairmen and board members of the premiership and first division teams right down to the grass roots - to local soccer through the worst times and with no money. However, the Football Trust was set up in 1958. Anybody who reads the finance section of the Taylor report - a report written in 1989 - will find that the trust was drawing in £9 million a year from the three major pools companies. From 1958 to 1989 about £120 million went into football for British teams. In relation to the trust's powers, the Taylor report actually says

"football in Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Why did we not get the money? If we did not get the money, we should be asking for some of it now. If we did get the money, why were the grounds not improved? We must ask those questions.

There are several things that we can do. For example, we can look at the time at which football is played. Most people focus on when Linfield, Glentoran, Cliftonville, Distillery or Carrick Rangers are playing. We do not need to focus on that. We need to focus on when other people are playing. Amateur and junior football teams play at the same time that the semi-professional teams play. We must focus on that problem and co-ordinate the games.

It is not just a matter of Government or the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure facilitating the process. We need to tell those in the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Irish Football League (IFL) who have responsibility that they must do certain things before the money will be made available. We are not a charity; we are here to save our national sport.

No one can argue that soccer is not a traditional sport for people from both communities. We must get people back into football grounds, and we must improve the quality of play. Most people think that the quality of play in the Irish Premier League is not very good. I watch the games every week, and I can assure Members that the quality is good. However, the League does not get proper media coverage.

There is also a focus on sectarianism. We are told that sectarianism is an evil in sport and that it keeps away the crowds. How does that explain the large crowds who watch Linfield play Cliftonville? Do one team's fans really stay away because of the sectarianism of the opposing fans? There has been little trouble in the past few years. The football clubs have made an effort, as have the IFA and the IFL, and that should be recognised. The way to get rid of hooliganism and sectarianism is to implement the recommendations contained in the Taylor report. The report recommends all-seater stadiums and a ticketing system that means that people should purchase tickets in their own name, that the tickets should be numbered and that people should have to sit in the allocated seats. If that happened, CCTV could show where the trouble was, and it could be quickly eradicated. We must focus on such improvements, but first we must get the crowds back to football.

There has been talk about developing junior soccer. In England, football academies have been set up because of the cost of buying players. The Football Association has set up its own school of excellence. We should do that in Northern Ireland, and we should also set up football academies in each of the six counties. That is the way to develop soccer.

People have suggested that we could restrict the opportunities for young players to move across the water. That is nonsense. Most parents who know that Liverpool, Manchester United, Leeds, Arsenal or Newcastle football clubs are interested in their child get pound signs in front of their eyes. In England, Arsenal paid £1 million for a fourteen-year-old - nobody here can compete with that. We must ensure that players who do not make it in England have somewhere to go in the Irish Premier League if they come back to Northern Ireland.

We cannot compete with the money in England, where clubs get billions of pounds for television coverage. We do not have that potential, so we need to understand what we have, how we can market it and what it is worth. We should not inhibit young players from Northern Ireland, who are the future of the international team, from going to England. If those children will be better players as a result of going over there, that is in the interest of Northern Ireland. Local clubs must make sure that they get players at the standard that they need.

I accept what Mr Hilditch said about local councils. I did not realise that rates were paid on the football side alone - I thought that rates were paid for the social clubs. We need to address that, but local councils should look at what the football clubs can do for them. We should also consider the fact that local councils subsidise leisure centres and theatres that probably do not draw the crowds that football grounds would, if we packaged football properly. Local councils should look at how they could subsidise football grounds and clubs. Belfast City Council would have a problem, because there are four football teams, but the council should examine ways of resolving it.

1.15 pm

The Minister said that many football fans leave these shores on a weekly basis to go to matches in Scotland and England. I have spoken to staff at the airports and ports, who tell me that approximately 5,500 fans leave these shores every week. If that figure is multiplied by the 38 matches in the Premier League, it gives some idea of how many people from here attend those matches.

It is important that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure shows leadership. I said earlier that I did not think that we should facilitate this strategy, but rather we should show leadership and tell people what they need to do. I am not advocating dictatorship, but we should resolve problems. I do not want this strategy - and I am sure other Members do not want it - simply because two bodies cannot agree. The Assembly must agree on what should be done and must ensure that people understand what needs to happen.

The document discusses the "image of soccer", and I am not sure what that refers to. It may be a reference to the quality of play by the teams or individual players, or it may refer to the image the fans bring to the game. Whatever it refers to, the image of football must be improved. Family membership and disabled supporters must be looked after, and grounds must be fitted out to ensure the safety of those people. That is outlined in the Taylor report, and it is important that we work on it.

My recommendation is that we proceed and that we look to the Taylor report for guidance. Did we or did we not receive money, and, if we did, has it been used for ground improvements? The report refers to football in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so if we did not receive money, we should be asking for it now. Other changes that involve taxes, people going through turnstiles not being charged VAT, and so forth can be dealt with by the British Government at Westminster. Rates can be dealt with locally.

The Government must come up with a scheme whereby businessmen are encouraged to invest in football. The Taylor report mentions one manager who took his children to a Tottenham Hotspur game where McDonald's burgers were on sale. I do not think that we will get a McDonald's in every football ground in Northern Ireland, but businesses must be asked to start putting money back into football here. Club chairmen and directors must be asked to examine the vision for football. There is a clear vision for football in the Taylor report, chapter 2 'A Better Future for Football', paragraph 59. If we achieve that vision, we will have achieved everything we can for a wonderful game.

Mr A Maginness:

Mr Hutchinson said that we need to get the crowds back to football matches in order to lift the game. But how do we get those crowds back, and how do we make the sport popular again? There is no doubt that soccer is universally popular. No other sport has such appeal -from South America to Europe to Africa. Soccer is the premier game in most countries. The Minister said that we were in the lead in the development of modern soccer, and that is true historically. However, something has happened along the line to cause local soccer to fall into decline.

This discussion document is, therefore, very timely, looking as it does at the problems associated with local soccer. This survey does not arrive at any conclusions, but it maps out areas of concern and suggests possible conclusions. The report is very useful indeed, and the Minister deserves great credit for initiating it.

The Minister also deserves great credit from the Assembly for his forthright rejection of any form of sectarianism in sport, particularly soccer, and for the political leadership that he has shown.

A number of issues need to be tackled, and this survey highlights them. Poor facilities is one such issue, and many Members have touched upon it. It is clear from the report that players and the public all regard poor facilities as a major problem. It is also clear from it that football matches, indeed soccer in general, are not seen as family-friendly and are ill-equipped in other ways as well.

There are other reasons for soccer's decline such as the extensive television coverage of high-quality professional football in Britain, Europe and throughout the world. Obviously, that has had an adverse impact on local soccer, because local soccer cannot compete with that. In addition, the attraction of premier league teams in Britain has produced a talent drain here. One cannot blame youngsters for being attracted to English clubs in particular. One could not practically or lawfully prevent youngsters from going across the water to improve their quality of play and their standard of living. There are other factors at work, some of which I have highlighted and are highlighted in the report, factors that are also at work in the Irish Republic and other parts of Britain.

We have unique problems with football. The survey identifies hooliganism and sectarianism as major problems. One can see from the survey that sectarianism is having an impact on attendance at international football and Irish League games. Sadly there is a division of opinion about the impact of sectarianism. Those perceived to be Protestants say that sectarianism negatively impacts on attendance at international matches by 36%, and those perceived to be Catholics say that it is by 83%.

At Irish League games, in the Protestant community it is seen as 26%, and in the Catholic community, 56%. I use those figures to highlight the fact that the Catholic community is more concerned about sectarianism impacting on attendance at Irish League clubs and international matches. That must be taken into consideration. It is fair to say that throughout the whole community there is great concern about the impact of sectarianism on football. We must address that as a community.

I agree with Billy Hutchinson that we as politicians must give leadership; we must show leadership in relation to sectarianism. Our Minister has given a lead in that regard. Any strategy that we develop in relation to the revival of local soccer must address the problem of sectarianism. I do not pretend that there is an easy solution to this. The issue must be addressed in a practical way before we can develop a more universal appeal for soccer and football in Northern Ireland.

If one looks at the popularity of rugby and gaelic football, one can see that the community has to some extent walked away from soccer. We must examine that to see what is happening, not just in the Catholic or Protestant community, but in the whole community.

It would be useful to look at the emphasis that is put on field sports in our schools. Do our schools put too much emphasis on rugby and gaelic football to the detriment of soccer? I do not see a tremendous emphasis on soccer in any school, whether Catholic or Protestant, controlled or maintained. At both primary and secondary levels, in both secondary intermediate and grammar schools, we should look at the sort of emphasis that is placed on the development of soccer as part of the physical education agenda of those schools. If we do not get that base correct in our schools, then soccer is going to have a continuous uphill struggle. Therefore I suggest that we look at that very carefully.

Mr Kennedy:

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. I warmly commend the Minister for bringing it to the House and also for his commitment to soccer. It is welcome that a Northern Ireland Minister of the Assembly should be so committed to the issue of local football. The soccer strategy for Northern Ireland report and its introduction have been widely welcomed by those in the game.

I agree largely with what the Member for North Belfast, Mr Hutchinson, said earlier. For many years, soccer provided an essential community outlet for youngsters in Northern Ireland to get away from and break out of sectarian strangleholds. It granted them the opportunity to employ their talents and show their sporting skills in a positive way, rather than engaging in other activities.

The Assembly and the community in Northern Ireland owes soccer a great debt and should be in a position to repay some of that debt.

1.30 pm

We have a great sporting tradition, particularly in soccer, in Northern Ireland. Peter Doherty, Danny Blanchflower - whom, allegedly, I am called after - Pat Jennings and George Best all crossed the sectarian divide. They all played with passion and pride for their clubs and for Northern Ireland. I have always regarded Windsor Park as the home of local soccer and as the national stadium of Northern Ireland. It has never caused me a problem to go there, along with people from all religions and of no religion.

I remember in 1981, in the dark days of this Province, when other events were taking place, the Northern Ireland soccer team provided a real boost for people of both communities and all traditions with its exploits on the field. The team of Martin O'Neill, Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Armstrong and Willie Hamilton provided a cross- community element that was worthy of great support and touched a raw nerve in the passion of local football. That team lifted the spirits and the morale of people in Northern Ireland. I am satisfied that the team and the fans who supported it were made up of the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.

I am surprised and disappointed to hear negative comments from perceived Nationalist elected representatives who are not able to give their support to the Northern Ireland international team. That is a huge mistake. It is incumbent on all public representatives to show proper leadership.

I have heard Kieran McCarthy, the Member for Strangford, on a number of occasions holding forth on the issue of sectarianism. I am not aware, and perhaps Mr McCarthy at some stage will inform the House, what his involvement and commitment to local soccer has been. Is it simply to grab a cheap and easy headline at the expense of those who love and cherish football? I sometimes wonder if Kieran McCarthy would know if a ball were blown up or stuffed, given some of his less informed comments.

Mr McCarthy:

I did not play for Ards, but I certainly played -

Madam Deputy Speaker:


Mr Kennedy:

No doubt he will inform the House when he gets an available moment.

I have some concern that attempts are being made to undermine Windsor Park as the national stadium of Northern Ireland. We should recognise the very strenuous efforts made by the International Football Association (IFA) and others and Linfield Football Club in creating neutral conditions and being actively opposed to sectarianism at Windsor Park. I firmly believe that Windsor Park should continue to be developed as the national stadium for Northern Ireland.

Mention of the national stadium project brings forward the idea that it can be a multisport facility. There are considerable objections from the GAA to that. The playing of any other code would appear to rule out the GAA's sharing a multi-purpose stadium. However, that remains to be seen.

I will say in respect of Alban Maginness's comments on the GAA that it is not unfair to remind him that Gaelic sport is almost exclusively Catholic and Nationalist. That is a fair point to raise, and to draw to his attention, when he makes a comparison with local soccer.

A plea should be made and supported for available moneys to be provided to local clubs. I am thinking of Irish League clubs, intermediate clubs, youth clubs - indeed, the full range. I include in that Newry Town football club, Armagh City football club and Loughgall in my constituency. A range of activity is provided, week in, week out, day in, day out, to develop young people's soccer skills and give them an outlet for their abilities.

I want to see schools' football and the football of other leagues cherished and developed. I take the point raised by Alban Maginness that in our schools, a greater emphasis should, perhaps, be placed on local soccer by those in charge. Every encouragement should be given. Broadly speaking, I welcome the strategy. I wish the Minister well and trust that something will be done to preserve and cherish local football.


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