Time for a level playing field for sports funding in Northern Ireland…

In a country where sports / cultural funding is generally split along sectarian Lines, the 3,000 people who participated in the Gran Fondo yet again tells us loud and clear that sports participation in Northern Ireland bears no resemblance to the way our politicians allocate funding for sporting capital projects in Northern Ireland.

Our politicians representing the various minority Nationalist / Unionists factions continue to fight each other for sports / cultural funding and make all the headlines with their Windsor Park and Casement Park ‘white elephant’ projects that will never be used by 99.9% of the population for actual sports participation purposes. Even visiting these facilities as a spectator, these stadia will only ever be visited by less than 10% of the population and filled to capacity possibly four – five times a year. The majority of the population will continue to do what all available data tells us they are already doing which is carrying on participating in a wide range of other sporting activities up and down the land.

The one common characteristic each of these ‘other’ sports have, is they generally are sports in which the rest of the world participates in regularly and unusually for Northern Ireland have no cultural or sectarian affiliation to just one  community, they are cross community sports, which may explain why most of these sports such as walking and  cycling receive little or no funding for capital projects from the Ni Assembly and instead have to rely on raising finance from other sources such as fundraising or the National Lottery.

My observations are supported by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s own research published in November 2012, undertaken by Dr Dan Hull titled ‘Grassroots Sport in Northern Ireland; A Summary of Participation and Potential Challenges.

As you can see in Page 10, the most popular sports that our population participate in most regularly include, walking, swimming, keep fit, golf, jogging and cycling.

The most surprising thing for me is how far down the table in the ‘Continuous Household Survey’ sports such as football (8th) and GAA (15th) rank yet it is these sports which have been allocated the lion’s share of funding running to over £100m for capital projects whilst many sports with higher participation levels receive little or no funding for capital projects. If one believes in evidence based funding decision making, the only conclusion that any reasonable person could make is that the whole method of allocating funding at Stormont for sporting / cultural capital projects in Northern Ireland is a process which is not fit for purpose.

The electorate deserve better and every penny spent on capital projects for sport should be allocated on the basis of need rather than cultural / political party affiliation. Our politicians should be using evidence based funding to determine how our already scarce resources should be allocated. Rather than spending over £100m pounds on sports than rank 8th and 15th respectively in terms of participation levels, serious consideration should be given to investing funds on facilities which will receive the greatest use by the general public such as swimming pools, sports halls, running tracks and velodromes etc. A £100m investment could construct over 20 new facilities across NI which could not only be used by the population all year round and represent good value for the taxpayer, but create more employment and economic activity in a greater number of locations across Northern Ireland.

All the available evidence clearly shows the wider Northern Ireland society does not need a revamped Windsor Park and certainly does not need a Casement Park type project. Watching our politicians waste scare resources on ‘white elephant projects’ whilst banging the ‘austerity’ and ‘protecting the most vulnerable in society’  drums on a daily basis is very odd indeed.

Our politicians are yet again, completely detached from the wants and needs of the majority of the population.

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