New Decade, New Approach….. but where does Sport fit?
The UK and Irish Governments have just published the text of a draft agreement aiming to restore and transform the Northern Ireland Executive. After three years without government and months of discussions we are now at the point where political parties have been asked to endorse a deal which would seek to tackle public services challenges and re-introduce decision making through the NI Assembly.
Within the 62 page document there are only two specific commitments made to the sporting sector however there are other areas in which sport and physical activity can play a role.
Annex 1- Programme for Government makes an investment commitment – Plan to complete the Regional and Sub Regional Sports Stadia Programmes. This is obviously not a new commitment with the National Football Stadium and Windsor Park and also Ulster Rugby’s Kingspan Stadium being completed in the last few years. This ongoing commitment will however provide assurance that the Executive is committed to redeveloping Casement Park in Belfast. Ulster GAA recently expressed frustration over the length of time it is taking for a planning decision to be made on the stadium which has a capacity of 34,500. It is nearly 3 years since Ulster GAA made their planning application for the stadium in February 2017 and challenges still remain. Due to ongoing delays there has been concerns regarding estimated costs and the viability of the project in the absence of an Executive. If an Executive is to be restored then the commitment to complete the Regional Sports Stadia Programme will provide comfort to Ulster GAA however there is still some way to go yet.
In 2011, the Executive endorsed an investment of circa £36 million for the proposal that the remaining football stadia development at sub-regional level should be taken forward as a priority area of spend in the next comprehensive spending review period. Almost 10 years on this has not progressed either to significant frustration within the soccer community however if an Executive is restored we are sure clubs will want action on this as quickly as possible.
It is safe to say that the hosting of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush was a massive success and there was significant world-wide exposure on Northern Ireland in July 2019. The draft deal indicates a commitment to bringing more big events such as the Open Championship to Norther Ireland.
Through promoting NI’s culture, heritage and society, the UK Government has made commitments for closer relationships with other sectors such as tourism, sport and culture and ‘this will mean attracting a portfolio of national and international events, including through developing a proposed UK-Ireland bid for the 2030 FIFA world cup’.
It is believed that the National Stadium at Windsor Park will not be large enough to be involved as host stadium for the 2030 World Cup however other opportunities may arise.
There will be significant interest on what would be included in the portfolio if national and international events. With the Commonwealth Youth Games debacle still a frustration for the NI Commonwealth Games Council and the sporting sector this is an interesting commitment. Will this portfolio of events need to be large spectator events such as the Open Championship requiring massive attendances and therefore be considered as tourism events? To the frustration of the NICGC and ourselves, we have not been able to learn from the failings of the CYG as relevant information such as business cases have not been shared. It was felt that the Belfast 2021 Youth Games may not generate enough ‘bed nights’ to make the Games financially viable to the Department for Economy and the sporting context was not fully considered within the business case criteria. This is one area which the NI Sports Forum will certainly be engaging with government on if a deal comes to fruition.
Arms Length Body Review
The Department for Communities established an Arms Length Body Transformation Programme team following a motion at the Assembly to review all ALB’s in November 2016. There was a subsequent stakeholder engagement event in April 2017 reviewing effectiveness and sustainability of some ALB’s. Alongside members we attended an event which consulted on the high level functions of Sport NI but as the Executive collapsed as this review was beginning there was no real progress on this review and we were informed in November 2017 that ‘Any decision on the next steps for the review will be taken by an incoming Minister’.
This draft deal aims for leaner government with a commitment to ‘Define terms of reference and initiate an efficiency and effectiveness review of all Arm’s Length Bodies with the aim of concluding the review and agreeing timescales for implementation within 6 months of the Executive being restored’.
The commitment to agree a final Programme for Government urgently is welcomed. Within the PfG there is an opportunity for a number of new strategies to be developed. Included within this list is strategies for active ageing, disability and significant investment in mental health. It is the view of NISF and our members that the sport and physical activity sector can play a key role within these strategies and there is an opportunity within the co-design principles secure sustained improvement in health and wellbeing and other PfG areas. One commitment from the document relating to the PfG is the commitment to ending short term budgeting and this will be something that will be welcomed across all sectors!
The Department for Communities has been advancing plans to develop a 10 year strategy for sport to follow Sport Matters which was due to finish in 2019. In our engagements with DfC we have highlighted the importance of real buy in from all government departments. The opportunity to engage with Minister’s from around the Executive table may ensure a more collaborative approach in the development and implementation of the strategy. The same can also be said in relation to the development of the Sport NI Corporate Plan which is under development at present.
There is reference to the Together Building a United Community (TBUC) strategy within the document. The TBUC programme which is endorsed by the Executive Office is focused on developing good relations across Northern Ireland. Sport has provided significant opportunities for engagement through the TBUC programme and commitments to reducing sectarianism will obviously continue in some form and we are keen to continue to highlight the power that sport can play in uniting communities in the future through any subsequent programme.
In 2017 a Community Hall’s fund was developed with funding for community organisations in urban and rural areas to undertake minor works and improvements to their premises. This funding totalled £500,000 however less than 10% of successful applicants were from the sporting sector. We will ensure that greater awareness of this scheme through a proposed Culture and Community fund which may have other strands for sports organisations to avail of. The Irish Government has also committed to a Reconciliation Fund of €3.7m per year to support projects in NI and border areas and to continue to prioritise EU Peace funding which has been vital to many organisations.