Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 25 June 2002


Soccer Strategy

Housing Support Services Bill: First Stage

Housing Bill: First Stage

Strategic Planning Bill: Second Stage

Marriage Bill:Second Stage

Pollution Prevention and Control Bill: Second Stage

Budget (No 2) Bill: Final Stage

Extension to the Committee Stage of Local Government
(Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Report by the Senior Salaries Review Body

Determination on Members’ Salaries

Financial Assistance for Political Parties

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Soccer Strategy


Mr Speaker:

I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement on creating a soccer strategy for Northern Ireland.

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):

With World Cup football euphoria all around us, it is perhaps timely that I bring the subject of football in Northern Ireland to the Assembly for debate. Regrettably, Northern Ireland has not been participating in the World Cup finals in Korea and Japan, but I hope that we shall qualify in future.

Members may recall that last May I introduced the future of football for debate in the Assembly. I had initiated a process of developing a football strategy for Northern Ireland in October 2000. Activities involved in that initiative included establishing an advisory panel, which was chaired by Billy Hamilton; a widespread research exercise, which included public meetings; a conference workshop in February 2001, which involved representatives of key stakeholder groups; and action planning to consider recommendations for the way forward.

Last year’s debate allowed me to elaborate on those activities and to provide an interim report on progress by the advisory panel in considering the issues that emerged.

Later, in October 2001, the advisory panel presented me with its final report, which contained more than 150 recommendations for developing the sport. I published the report for consultation, and Members were sent copies. The official closing date for comments was the end of January 2002.

My purpose in bringing this subject to the Assembly is to update Members on the current position; to advise Members on the result of consultation on the advisory panel’s report; to give my assessment of what must happen to overcome the problems facing football; and to put the game in Northern Ireland on a sounder footing for the future.

I wish to convey my sincere appreciation to the organisations and individuals, which include some Assembly representatives, that have shown a keen interest throughout the process and have forwarded their views on the recommendations to my Department.

Before I move on to a more detailed discussion of the recommendations, I wish to explain why I have devoted particular attention to football. I have been asked, "Why football?". Northern Ireland seems to have an innate ability to produce great football players such as Danny Blanchflower and, of course, George Best, who received one of the highest accolades in football when he was named European Footballer of the Year in 1968.

We are the smallest country ever to have played in the World Cup finals on three occasions. We reached the quarter-finals in 1958 and 1982, and the first round in 1986. Norman Whiteside, at 17 years of age, was the youngest player ever to have played in the World Cup finals. That is a proud history, and it is an inspiration for the future.

Around 26,000 people play football in Northern Ireland: people of all ages and of all levels of talent. Those are official figures, but they do not take account of recreational play in the local leisure centre or the number of children who knock a ball about in the school playground, the local pitch or on the street. Those numbers must run into many thousands.

We must not forget the managers, referees, coaches, spectators and administrators who support the game in other ways. Figures show that there are 1,700 qualified coaches and 400 officials, including referees. Vast numbers of volunteers and parents give endless time and commitment to the game, week in and week out.

Football has one of the highest levels of participation of any sport in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it is an interface game that crosses our society’s divisions.

However, it is a sport in serious difficulties, especially at senior level. It faces many problems, including sub-standard grounds, low match attendances, unruly crowd behaviour and financial problems.

As the Minister responsible for sport, I considered it my responsibility to do something to resolve the difficulties facing one of our most popular sports, and that is why I initiated a process to study all aspects of the game. However, that has not been to the exclusion of other sports, and I am prepared to continue to consider proposals for the betterment of sport and our society in general.

I shall summarise the main recommendations of the advisory panel’s report. The panel felt that the bodies on governance and administration were not as effective as they should be and that they should take steps to change the arrangements, preferably by creating a new governing body, which would combine the functions of the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Irish Football League. The Irish League should be reorganised into three divisions and should form the top of a pyramid that provides an open, inclusive and progressive league structure from the grass roots to the top.

Clubs should take steps to improve how they manage their affairs and should place emphasis on developing community-based activities. An agreed, coherent youth development policy should be established to provide a strong foundation for the future.

The governing body’s successful football programme for children and adults with learning disabilities should be broadened to include people with physical disabilities and sensory impairment.

The development of girls’ and women’s football should become a mainstream activity of the governing body, as should the management and co-ordination of refereeing. Each of those areas should have dedicated development officers.

A Northern Ireland players’ football association should be established, and supporters should form a football supporters’ association.

Building on work to date, the governing body should lead on the development of a strategy to tackle sectarianism and to improve community relations, and steps should be taken to improve media relations.

The Government should introduce new legislation for Northern Ireland to ensure safety at sports grounds and to control spectator behaviour. The legislation should be accompanied by a funding package to improve grounds and safety management. An assessment should be undertaken to map out present playing facilities and to assess future requirements.

A national stadium that provides a neutral and welcoming environment, and that meets international standards for football should be established. Last, but by no means least, the advisory panel emphasised the importance of treating, and taking forward, its recommendations as an integrated package.

We consulted widely on the advisory panel’s report. The vast majority of those who commented during the consultation period endorsed the recommendations. Having considered the panel’s report and the comments received, I shall give the Assembly my assessment of what needs to happen in football.

The core issue to emerge from the process, and the most sensitive one to resolve, was that relating to the governance and administration of football in Northern Ireland. The responses to the advisory panel’s report indicate broad support for the line taken by the panel, especially for the key recommendation for a single, newly constituted governing body that combines the current functions of the IFA and the Irish Football League. I recognise that both organisations are long established and have served the community well over many years — the IFA since 1880 and the Irish Football League since 1890. They deserve much credit for that.

In more recent times, however, the wider football community has shown an apparent lack of confidence in the present arrangements, as evidenced by research and widespread consultation. We are living in changed times, especially in Northern Ireland, and I support the view that arrangements and practices for managing football must be adapted to meet modern-day needs and standards, and to meet present and future challenges for the game.

Both organisations recognise and accept the need to change. A group of representatives from the two bodies has been working for some months, with the support of a facilitator engaged by my Department, to consider proposals. That is significant, and I warmly welcome the efforts that they have been making.

A widely accepted football administration should be put in place, founded on the principles of equality, fairness, inclusiveness, leadership, accountability and transparency. I attach significant importance to those principles, as does the Assembly. An acceptable administration in charge of the management of the game is key to making progress across all other issues.

I wish to see an organisation that provides effective leadership and clear strategic direction to the game; that is fully acceptable and accountable to all levels of the sport; that is properly and fairly representative of all levels of the sport, with full integration of all levels into policy making and programme activities; that is innovative and imaginative in promoting and delivering the game across all areas of activity such as the disabled, women’s and girls’ soccer, community relations, supporters and refereeing; that owns and is capable of delivering a plan to put football back where it belongs, as a dynamic and growing sport for everyone; and that is transparent and open to scrutiny, both at governance and day-to-day administrative levels.

The IFA and Irish Football League representatives have been considering proposals for change for around six months. It is imperative that those organisations urgently and comprehensively bring their deliberation on the issue to a conclusion and give a clear commitment to implement changes generally consistent with the advisory panel’s recommendations. I have already met their group of representatives, and they are fully aware of my position.

I wish to make it abundantly clear that I consider that the effective management and administration of football is fundamental to making progress on all other fronts. Without a commitment to change, I am unable to envisage how we can move forward on all the other issues. As I mentioned in my summary of the advisory panel’s findings, the panel’s view was that all its recommendations must be considered as an integrated package, and I agree with that view.

An area of concern that emerged from consultation on the advisory panel’s report was that it was perceived by some to place too much emphasis on senior clubs without sufficiently addressing the needs of junior or intermediate football, or recognising the voluntary contributions devoted by many people week after week.

There is no doubt that acute problems exist at senior club level. I have already mentioned some of them, and Members will be familiar with the issues. Improvements in the senior game will have a positive impact on all other levels, from grass roots to international. It is a poignant reminder that Northern Ireland has not qualified for a World Cup tournament since 1986. It would be nice to think that that could be turned around over the next decade. That is achievable if we provide a pathway up from the grass-roots level for the most talented players.

10.45 am

However, the soccer strategy is not all about providing for the most talented players. It is about providing the best possible opportunity for the community to have access to and to participate in the game at all levels — playing, refereeing, watching, making a voluntary contribution, et cetera. At the outset of the initiative, I made it clear that there would be a collective process to understand and address the problems facing the game. The recommendations produced by the panel address more than senior football, and an important one is that there should be a pyramid system enabling progression from the grass roots to senior football. That has my support, but junior and intermediate clubs should want to aspire to the standards of senior clubs. Is that happening now?

Other recommendations that would have an impact on the non-senior game relate to youth development, women’s and girls’ football, refereeing, playing facilities and the governance and administration of the game. I expect any long-term development plan for football to address all levels of the game, and I do not envisage any additional resources being for senior football only. They would also have to provide for development outside the senior game, and location must also be taken into account to ensure opportunities for widespread access and participation.

The advisory panel’s view is that we should have a national stadium to meet international standards for football and that such a stadium must have a neutral and welcoming environment for everyone. I concur. However, the priority is to get the football structure right to ensure that football’s potential as a participation and spectator sport is realised before we engage in such a capital undertaking. Therefore, my first concern is to ensure a sound basis for the sport in Northern Ireland rather than prestigious projects. We need a football ground of international standard, and that is why the governing body must produce detailed options for meeting that need.

The football authorities must settle the long-term structure of the Irish League without delay. I have already said that I support a pyramid structure with the Irish League at the top. The structure must be clearly defined, with clearly established criteria for promotion and relegation.

Football clubs, especially the senior ones, must manage their affairs more effectively and efficiently, and there should be training to help them. The key to the future of all clubs, regardless of the level that they play at, is community involvement. That should be the priority for clubs. There is much scope for them to bond better with their communities and to establish themselves as active and vibrant hubs of activity through linking up and working with local clubs and teams. Those should include women’s and girls’ teams; youth clubs; primary, secondary and special schools; disabled groups; ethnic minority groups; community groups; supporters; and participants in other sports. Clubs must be imaginative and proactive in establishing those links — the bigger clubs or consortia could play a leading role in developing community involvement, and I am prepared to look at ways of helping football further down that route.

I endorse the widespread view that youth development in football is a crucial building block for the future of the game. That is why I have already invested initial funding in that. Urgent steps are needed to establish a common youth development policy, based on the advisory panel’s recommendations, which has the agreement and commitment of all interested groups, including the Northern Ireland Women’s Football Association, the Northern Ireland Boys’ Football Association and the Northern Ireland Schools’ Football Association, among others. Northern Ireland should have a youth academy, and that should be developed as part of the Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI).

Northern Ireland should have similar legislation to the mainland that makes provision for improved safety at major sports grounds and for controlling spectator behaviour. I am willing to introduce proposals for such legislation that would be applicable to football, rugby and Gaelic grounds. New safety legislation would have significant implications for many sports grounds in that improvement work would need to be carried out in order to comply with the new safety requirements. That would require major investment, and an assessment has identified that expenditure in the region of £30 million would be necessary over eight to 10 years. Any funding support to clubs for improved facilities and safety management should be tied into conditions relating to wider measures for improving the game, such as youth development, community development, the development of women’s and girls’ sides of the sport, et cetera. Clubs would be expected to make a financial contribution to ground improvements.

Adequate playing facilities are essential, especially for the football grass roots, to meet the needs of the hundreds of teams and players that turn out each week. We need to examine the implications of introducing a pyramid system whereby clubs that aim to progress would have to fulfil certain criteria on standards. The introduction of mini soccer for primary school-age children would have implications for facilities for clubs, district councils and, in particular, schools. Special requirements for women and girls would have to be allowed for. The Sports Council for Northern Ireland should be asked to lead, in consultation with key users and providers, in mapping out existing provision, assessing future needs and examining ways of meeting those needs.

I fully agree with the advisory panel’s recommendations on the future development for disability, women’s football and refereeing. I fully acknowledge the excellent and positive work carried out by the IFA, but there is scope for the governing body to play a more active and leading role in those areas. The governing body and other providers should be mindful of the need to promote equality of opportunity for all. That includes the need to take account of ethnic minorities, and possibly other groups, in our society. I have already referred to the scope for clubs to engage with ethnic minority groups to establish greater links with their communities.

Sport is a vehicle for building better community relations. Football, as an interface sport, is particularly suitable, and I support the advisory panel’s recommendations on this subject.

Local football recognises the need for a positive image for the game. The IFA and the Irish League have taken positive steps towards implementing the panel’s recommendations for improving media relations. I especially welcome the Irish League’s work on producing a communications code of practice.

Last year, I informed the Assembly that steps were being taken by football players to re-establish the Players’ Football Association. However, I understand that the organisation has not materialised in spite of initial enthusiasm. That is disappointing, but perhaps players will revisit the idea at some time in the future when there is an improved football environment overall.

I am not aware of any steps by football supporters to form an umbrella body in Northern Ireland similar to the Football Supporters’ Association in England. Again, that is a matter for the supporters themselves to address, but I noted with interest the advisory panel’s comments that the Football Supporters’ Association has become an effective and respected lobby group that is consulted regularly on a range of issues. Perhaps that is a step further down the line.

Sunday football has proved to be an emotive issue, and it has attracted many letters from members of the public who strongly object to the idea. I fully understand and respect that view. In comparison, the majority of the responses received from those who have a more direct interest in football agreed that the rules should be changed to provide the option to play on a Sunday, and I fully appreciate that also. The key to this is choice. Both views are valid and sincerely held. It is not for me to impose a solution. It must be decided at individual and community levels, and that is a matter for the football organisations.

How should we move forward from here? I have explained the rationale behind my initiative to develop a football strategy. However, it is important to remember that sports governing bodies are, in general, voluntary organisations established to co-ordinate, control and develop all aspects of a particular sport. I recognise and respect that position and, in the case of football, I have striven to work and co-operate with the IFA to encourage change.

I have outlined the bones of the way ahead for football, and we now need to put flesh on those bones in the form of a detailed development plan. In recognition of the role of the governing body, it is primarily a matter for the IFA to take the lead in drawing up a development plan, in close association with the Sports Council and in consultation with other relevant parties.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr J Wilson] in the Chair)

It is essential that the long-term development plan include the following: the fundamental principles of equality, fairness, inclusiveness, accountability, leadership and transparency — to which I attach significant importance; clear objectives, actions and targets, and demonstrations of how they are linked to the advisory panel’s recommendations; resource requirements linked to a time frame; and a clear case supporting the need for such resources, citing the additional benefits that they would bring for football and for the wider community.

The development plan should demonstrate how assistance for football would help the Government meet their wider aims and objectives. Through the strategy process we have assembled substantial information, recommendations and views to enable work on such a plan to begin. I am prepared to present a paper to the Northern Ireland Executive seeking the necessary resources to support action to restore the game of football to its position as a successful sport that serves both communities.

However, as Colleagues will be aware, there can be no guarantee that additional resources from the public purse will be forthcoming, given the fact that resources are scarce and that there is pressure from other sports and sectors under my responsibility, let alone from other Departments. The case for football must, therefore, be comprehensive and robust. If I am to bid for resources, I need a development plan to be presented to me urgently. There must be an immediate indication from the IFA that it agrees to move forward on that basis.

From 2000 to 2002, my Department made available £2·5 million, which, together with funding from the National Lottery and the Football Foundation, has enabled the Sports Council to assist a programme of safety improvement works at major sports grounds. By that, I mean football, Gaelic and rugby grounds. Under that scheme, football has benefited to date to the tune of £1·96 million, of which £1·58 million has gone directly towards improvement works at 21 grounds.

Last December, I announced that there would be further funding of £1 million to support the continuation of that programme in 2002-03, and I expect that football will continue to be a major beneficiary. That is the first significant funding made available for safety work at sports grounds in Northern Ireland, and it was possible only as a direct consequence of a devolved Government with a Minister responsible for local sports matters. As commendable and welcome as that has been, considerably more funding is required if we are to bring major sports grounds up to acceptable standards for players and spectators. As I have said, some £30 million would be required, and it is estimated that a significant portion of that would be required for football grounds.

11.00 am

I was also pleased to announce last December that I would make £1·6 million available over three years until 2003-04 to address some of the matters that were identified in the advisory panel’s report. That money is being invested in youth development — specifically, in the programme for football development centres. Each of those will deliver three key strands of youth development: mini soccer targeted at primary school children at Key Stage 2; community football for 12- to 16-year-olds that involves innovative community-based activities to broaden interest in the game; and centres of excellence that will provide elite coaching for the most talented players in those age groups. Opportunities at those centres must be open to both boys and girls and to persons with a disability.

Applications from clubs, or from a combination of clubs, for assistance under the programme were invited by public advertisement on 17 and 18 June. Awards will be determined on the basis of the ability of clubs, or a combination of clubs, to meet the necessary criteria. I look forward to seeing the first of these football development centres being established over the next few months. The Department will, of course, monitor their effectiveness and success.

I have already been successful in providing much needed finance to improve football. However, extra funding for safety improvements runs out in March 2003, and that for the youth development programme runs out in March 2004. Clearly, if all the advisory panel’s recommendations are to be accepted and taken forward in their entirety, considerably more investment will be required. By initiating the strategy and by having already brought substantial funding to the table, I believe that I have demonstrated good faith in the game of football and a commitment to helping it out of its difficulties.

Obviously, much more must be done to improve football in Northern Ireland. A huge amount of time and effort has already been devoted to bringing the process to this stage. I am satisfied that the recommendations in the advisory panel’s report, taken in their totality, have the support of wider football interests and provide a sound basis for developing the game. The report must now be translated into an agreed development plan for action, and I look to the governing body to produce that, with support from the Sports Council.

If I am to lodge a package of costed proposals with the Executive, which, I emphasise, must be done in 2002, the leadership of football must live up to its responsibilities to the football community and provide a clear, unambiguous commitment to sign up to a package of measures that are consistent with the recommendations in the advisory panel’s report. In particular, it must agree to implement changes in the structure of governance and administration of football, and lead in drawing together a long-term plan for the future of football in Northern Ireland. Without such a commitment I have no basis on which to continue to make a special case for football.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr ONeill):

I commend the Minister on his full and frank statement on the advisory panel’s report on the future of soccer. Like the Minister, the Committee strongly supports the advisory panel’s recommendations. It also agrees that they should be developed as a complete package. However, public funding for sport, as for everything else, is limited. There are many calls on scarce resources.

The Minister said that soccer has done exceptionally well compared to other sports in the past few years. Those who are involved in other sports might justifiably ask why the leadership of football has been so slow to respond to the interest shown in its difficulties, why it has apparently failed to acknowledge the effort that has been invested in drawing up the recommendations for its future and why it seems not to have recognised that the public funding that it has received to date begs some response. When the Minister talks about an immediate response, does he mean that a timetable has been set for that response? Has the Minister set a deadline, and if not, why not?

Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise to the Minister, as I will be unable to stay for the rest of the comments. I have another appointment.

Mr McGimpsey:

I am not in the business of setting deadlines. The Assembly, the Executive and I are here to support football and the bodies concerned with developing the game. We want to create a successful and vibrant sport that will enable us to compete at the highest level on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to ensure participation and access at all levels. Football has had support, but much more needs to be done.

The Hamilton Report was published on 30 October 2001. The IFA and the Irish Football League have had almost nine months to respond to it. People are asking why those bodies have not responded by now. Nine months is sufficient time to respond. To mitigate that criticism somewhat, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is facilitating a process between the IFA and the Irish Football League to arrive at an agreed position to allow them to move forward. That process has been ongoing for some months.

I do not impose deadlines, but the process itself, almost by definition, imposes its own. Football is, to an extent, running out of time as regards the Hamilton Report. The footballing bodies would be doing a great disservice to the football family and themselves if they did not respond positively and urgently to that report.

Mr Davis:

I declare an interest, as I am a member of a football club that has just gained promotion. I congratulate the Minister on his statement and on establishing the advisory panel, which was representative of all football interests. We must recognise the panel’s commitment to the soccer strategy.

Several important matters and recommendations were noted in the report. I agree especially with the Minister that there has to be effective management and administration of the game in Northern Ireland. Indeed, those involved in administrating football here must make a genuine commitment to change. The nettle must be grasped to stop the sport from continuing to wither.

Any recommendations for the good of the game must be implemented as quickly as possible, as football is under tremendous pressure. Everyone involved in football at all levels in the Province is to be congratulated for his contribution to the sport over many years. However, I am sure that the Minister will agree that something must be done as quickly as possible.

Mr McGimpsey:

I wholly concur with Mr Davis’s remarks. It is nine months since the publication of the Hamilton Report. That should have been adequate time in which to make a definitive response. Work is ongoing in the background between the two governing bodies, the IFA and the Irish Football League. However, there is dissatisfaction in the football family that things have not moved faster. It seems that football is facing severe challenges.

Northern Ireland last competed at the highest level in 1986, and participation at that level is the manifestation of a healthy game. If we want that high-level standard to be reached, we need to consider the grass roots. Football is the people’s game. It must be accessible, and participated in, by the people. Improving standards from the youth level upwards is the way to reach the highest level.

There is much to be done. The Hamilton Report, with its 150 recommendations, is football’s voice, not mine. That view of football is the product of 12 months’ exhaustive work by the panel. It listened carefully to the views of the football family, and its recommendations and views are the voice of the constituency and must be paramount.

Mr Hilditch:

I declare an interest. It is unfortunate that we are limited to questions on the Minister’s statement and cannot debate it. I welcome broadly the statement and look forward to the implementation of the recommendations, particularly the football development centres, which, it is hoped, will be up and running by August 2002.

Where does the blame for the disappointment lie? At various levels of administration there is a hunger to progress, but there is a blockage in the system. Perhaps the Minister could specify where the blockage occurs.

Is the Minister aware that, at its meeting on Thursday 27 June, the Irish Football League management committee will examine next year’s league structures? Has any guidance been given on that, through consultation with that committee, given that leagues of 12 teams and eight teams present problems? The premier league would be lucky to complete the season.

As a result of the advisory panel’s report, people became involved to save local clubs, some of which were hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt. Is it likely that a stupid and rash decision by the Irish Football League management committee would cut those clubs adrift and remove their senior status, given that they are perhaps less than halfway through a five-year business plan?

Mr McGimpsey:

I thank Mr Hilditch for his constant interest and his broad welcome. The implementation plan is not a matter for me but for the IFA, the governing body of football. We seek the IFA’s agreement to embrace the recommendations and to produce a plan to demonstrate how those will be implemented.

It is not helpful to apportion blame at this time. The Hamilton Report contained many changes and recommendations. They will take time to assimilate, but a facilitation process is under way.

Mr Hilditch mentioned the football community’s disappointment, and I share some of his frustration. Hamilton recommended a pyramid of three leagues, each with 14 teams. Again, that is a matter for the Irish Football League. It is not for me to impose the number of leagues or the number of teams in them. However, we look to the Irish Football League to reflect the Hamilton recommendations, which were taken as a package.

No guidance was given by my Department, other than the support given to football. That has been achieved by creating a strategy for football in accordance with the Hamilton Report. It is a matter for the Irish Football League; however, bearing in mind that the recommendations resulted from consultation with the football constituency as a whole, it would be a mistake not to consider them seriously.

Mr Boyd:

I too declare an interest. I am a member of Linfield Football Club and hold a season ticket. I take particular interest in the future of Windsor Park.

The Minister referred to proposals for a national stadium. However, Members have been told that resources are scarce for all Irish League grounds, not just Windsor Park. Would the scarce resources not be better spent on bringing Windsor Park up to international standard and improving other Irish League grounds? Does the Minister, in his reference to neutrality at the stadium, mean that the Union flag would not fly and the national anthem would not be sung at international matches?

11.15 am

Mr McGimpsey:

I have attempted to make clear my position on having a national stadium at several Question Times, but I will do so again for the benefit of Mr Boyd, who may have missed my answers. Apart from land and running costs, more than £60 million is needed to build a national stadium to international standard. If I had £60 million, I would not spend it on such a prestigious capital project; I would spend it on developing the game. There are tangible examples of such development, which include the allocation of £1·6 million to the youth development programme. Money should be spent on raising the standard of the game. Most people in football aspire to a prestigious national stadium, but such a project is feasible only at a particular time, and now is not that time.

Mr Boyd referred to the scarcity of resources. I compete with other Ministers for scarce resources, so the chance of winning more than £60 million to build a football ground is remote. Moreover, football has more fundamental needs than a prestigious new stadium, though that may come in time. Windsor Park and other football grounds need capital expenditure, as do Gaelic and rugby grounds, for which there are investment plans. The Department’s health and safety scheme will continue to benefit those sports.

Mr Boyd questioned my reference to the neutrality of the national stadium. I will not define what is meant by that; Mr Boyd can do that for himself. A national stadium should be a place where everyone feels comfortable and welcome. Questions have been asked about the neutrality of Windsor Park. The authorities there take that seriously, and I look forward to hearing their proposals.

Windsor Park does not meet international standards, and if we want future international games there, money must be found and practical help given to enable the Irish Football Association to improve the ground to the minimum standard.

Mr McMenamin:

The report comes at an appropriate time, and I welcome it. I am in favour of community and voluntary involvement, of which the Foyle Cup in the north-west is a good example. It is imperative that areas that have been neglected be high on the agenda. Omagh Town is the only Irish League team west of the Bann. Although my home town has several excellent football teams, it has never had senior representation in either the B division league or the Premier League. I welcome the commitment to community involvement and, especially, the safety legislation. Will the Minister ensure that areas such as Strabane are given top priority?

Mr McGimpsey:

I thank Mr McMenamin for his broad support. There are ways to deal with areas of neglect. For example, the Executive and the Programme for Government have several overarching principles, especially for targeting social need, rural proofing and so forth, and those should help. I am talking primarily about football. As for the progress of Mr McMenamin’s local club, one of the key recommendations was a pyramid league system that would allow teams to progress upwards if their standards and skills matched.

As I have already said, community involvement is the key to that. There is a huge constituency for football; nearly everybody has played football at one time or another, whether recreationally, formally at school or on other teams. Who can forget the night when Northern Ireland beat Spain in 1982? We remember those highlights. There is a strong groundswell of support for football. However, football does not connect at every level of the community, so its future must be based on building those connections. Some clubs are making efforts on that front, but others must work harder. Football clubs collectively, like all of us, must work harder. Community involvement is needed to improve standards at every level of the game.

Dr Adamson:

I too should like to congratulate the Minister and his advisory panel on the report. Will he elaborate on how it fits with the Sports Council for Northern Ireland’s ‘Strategy for the Development of Sport in Northern Ireland 1997-2005’, written by President Mary McAleese, among others, when she was a professor at the Queen’s University of Belfast?

Mr McGimpsey:

I thank Dr Adamson for his support for the strategy and our progress with it.

The Sports Council is responsible for developing sport in Northern Ireland and is the prime funding body through which the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure directs it resources. Its policy, business plan and objectives have been agreed, and they fit in well with the objectives of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Executive and the Assembly. The Sports Council will be reviewed soon, and that will be informed by developments since that strategy was published. I was unaware that Mary McAleese was involved with the Sports Council in those days; there is no limit to some people’s talents.

The Sports Council’s budget was cut last year from £2·8 million to £2·3 million. Its budget is decreasing, and so is participation in sport in Northern Ireland. There is a direct relationship between the two. The latest survey by Queen’s University demonstrates that those with an active lifestyle cost the Health Service 30% less than inactive people do. Therefore, if we want to save money in the Health Service in the long term we must involve people in an active, healthy lifestyle. The prime body for involving people in those activities is the Sports Council.

Mr J Kelly:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome broadly the report. I am happy that the Minister mentioned players such as Danny Blanchflower and George Best, but I remind him that today in Magherafelt a plaque is being unveiled to a man who may be among the greats of Irish football: Peter Doherty. He is also worthy of mention, as are Jackie Vernon or Mickey Hamill, for example. Jackie Vernon was probably one of the best centre backs who ever played for Ireland.

If there is to be a soccer strategy, what about strategies for hockey, cricket, rugby and boxing? Will those sectors feel marginalised because of the concentration on soccer?

The first team to beat England on English soil was an all-Ireland soccer team that won 2-1 at Goodison Park in 1948. The English made the excuse that, because the match was not played at Wembley, it did not count. We had to wait until Hungary beat England 6-3 before it counted.

Soccer is an interface sport with an unhappy history. Malcolm Brodie said recently that there was no future for a Northern Ireland soccer team in international football. Will the Minister examine the possibility of creating an all-Ireland soccer team, just as there are all-Ireland rugby, hockey and boxing teams?

Windsor Park was mentioned as a possible venue for a national stadium, but it would not qualify as a neutral or welcome environment. Given that so many sports are played on an all-Ireland basis, might there not be some merit in discussing with Bertie Ahern the idea of a superbowl rather than a "Bertie Bowl" or even a "McGimpsey Bowl"?

Ms Ramsey:

You would need to get the begging bowl out.

Mr McGimpsey:

I referred to Danny Blanchflower and George Best. George is far and away our most famous footballer and is arguably, as Pelé has said, the greatest footballer ever. John Kelly mentioned Peter Doherty and Mickey Hamill, and he reiterated my point that we have a wide range of players, past and present. The Northern Ireland manager, Sammy McIlroy, played for Northern Ireland in the World Cup tournaments in Spain and Mexico. People sometimes forget that the manager of Celtic, Martin O’Neill, was a hugely successful player who has a couple of European Cup medals to his credit. We have a proud football heritage.

With regard to other sports feeling marginalised because a soccer strategy is being adopted, the fact is that football is the people’s game, and it is an interface game. It is played by all sections of the community. As far as good governance is concerned, there is no contradiction in helping footballers and supporting football. Representatives for hockey and other sports have never complained of being marginalised.

John Kelly mentioned the 1948 all-Ireland soccer team, and the idea for another such team has been mooted. I have not read Malcolm Brodie’s comment that Northern Ireland soccer has no future; however, during the 1958, 1982 and 1986 World Cup competitions, Northern Ireland was the smallest country ever to compete. We have a proud list of players who, over the years, have played key roles in the game at local, national and international level.

The IFA is football’s governing body in Northern Ireland, and it is the fourth-oldest governing body in the world. It was established when football was an all-Ireland sport and there was one national team — Ireland. In 1921, the Irish Free State broke away from the United Kingdom, and Republicans forced partition on Ireland and refused to play all-Ireland football. The Irish Free State insisted on setting up its own association, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). For many years, Northern Ireland continued to play under the name "Ireland", and the Ireland team was Northern Ireland until the mid-1950s. After repeated complaints from the Southern authorities, it was agreed that the name "Ireland" would be dropped, and the teams started to call themselves "Northern Ireland" and the "Republic of Ireland".

That is the history.

11.30 am

As regards the future, no one seems to be pushing for an all-Ireland team in a constructive way. My role as Minister with responsibility for sport is to support Sammy McIlroy and the Northern Ireland team. That is the team that I cheer for and that I went to see regularly at Windsor Park. I assure the Member that the crowds who went to see the team play in 1982 and 1986 were by no means drawn from one section of the community.

Mr McCarthy:

I thank the Minister for his report, which contains many noble aspirations. I wish him every success with it.

However, we are talking about getting the community to go to football matches and encouraging families to attend. There is nothing in the report that deals with the reasons why people stay away from football matches. The Minister must be living with his head in the sand. Although improvements have been made, not nearly enough has been done to address the sectarianism and tribalism that keeps people away. The Minister seems to dodge the question every time.

Was consideration given to introducing legislation similar to the Football (Offences) Act 1991 to Northern Ireland? Does the Minister recognise that sectarian, racist and tribal chanting continues to be a serious problem on Northern Ireland's football terraces? If so, what plans does he have to tackle the problem -[Interruption].

I hear a great deal of noise from one corner of the House. It would be good manners if those Members were to allow me the opportunity to speak and to let the Minister hear what I have to say. The Minister mentioned -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

As was the case during two earlier contributions, I am having difficulty spotting the Member's question. The Minister is also having some difficulty in that regard. Will the Member ask his question.

Mr McCarthy:

Yes. If the Member could have peace from interruptions -


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