Sports NI come under fire over allocation of sports funding

 By Damien Edgar

A prominent MLA has claimed that he was “appalled” to find that GAA clubs across Northern Ireland have received more than double the exchequer funding allocated than their footballing counterparts over the past five years.

According to the answer TUV leader Jim Allister received from a question to the Assembly , GAA clubs have received £18 million over the past five years, while soccer clubs associated with the IFA have received £8.5 million in the same period. The starkest contrast is struck with the funding that rugby clubs have received in that period, a mere £708,187 leaving them far behind their Gaelic and soccer counterparts. Allister went on to point out that even with Lottery funding taken into account, the gap was still remarkable.

As recently as March of this year, GAA, soccer and rugby clubs were given a huge financial boost when then Stormont Sports Minister, Nelson McCausland, announced they would receive a post-budget injection of cash. Again, the GAA and the IFA was the main benefactor, with the GAA receiving more than £60 million to redevelop Casement Park in West Belfast as the provincial headquarters of Gaelic Games in Northern Ireland.

The IFA were also granted about £61 million, with £25 million earmarked for the redevelopment of Windsor Park and the other £36 million going towards developing other stadia. IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson, claimed that the money set aside for the development of local football was a great day for football. “We have been working with the minister and the sports department to look at making Windsor Park fit for purpose. Football is the most popular sport and this money will make the difference at club level as well”.

Rugby clubs received a fraction of the money allocated to the latter, just £15 million for building new and upgrading existing stands at the Ravenhill ground.

The current wealth of funding afforded to the “big three” sports in Northern Ireland raises valid questions over whether smaller sports can survive or come into creation in an environment where funding seems to be primarily channelled into sports that are established and already make more money than the smaller sports around them.

Under the current system, sporting organisations apply to Sports NI for grants and funding, with their applications being considered on the current level of facilities available within their area. GAA clubs can also apply to the Ulster GAA Council for funding.

Jim Wells, MLA, made headlines recently when he proposed that GAA clubs should be pushed out of bag-packing activities at local supermarkets, claiming they deprived “genuine charities” of the chance to raise money and that the GAA was an “organisation rolling in money”.

The criticism voiced by both Jim Allister and Jim Wells demonstrates that the more hard line Unionist parties in Northern Ireland still harbour some resentment towards the GAA, having previously cited the organisation’s willingness to name grounds after IRA members as non-inclusive.

However, when asked about the current level of funding for the GAA, Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff defended it and said Sport NI should be allocating more.

“The GAA is truly the “Big Society” in action. I believe that Government does not give sufficient funding to the GAA, an organisation which is the most community rooted sporting and cultural body of its kind in Europe.

“I believe that the GAA has recently lost out because of the withdrawal ofthe ‘Places for Sport’ programme. This capital funding programme fitted really well with the GAA because in nearly all circumstances the GAA owns its own property or has a long term lease on it and is ready to go in terms of community fundraising, planning permission etc. The pulling of this programme has left things very difficult for GAA Clubs and County Boards in the north which have plans for flood lighting, second training pitches etc.

“These facilities are necessary because of the expansion of the GAA and the large numbers of participants.

“Rural Ireland, in particular, would be a social wasteland if it wasn’t for the existence of the local GAA club. Any funding which the GAA receives from Government is more than well earned. The GAA is a godsend for government and communities are far more cohesive as a consequence of the GAA.”

Adrian O’Kane, chairman of Drumragh Sarsfields G.A.C. agreed with Barry McElduff’s assessment.

“The GAA is a wonderful example of a community organisation. It gives young people the opportunity to meet peers with the same interests and it teaches them valuable lessons about teamwork and the value of working together”.

Drumragh Sarsfields was the beneficiary of a £1 million development loan from Sports NI, that allowed the club to create a state of the art facility as well as two new pitches at Clanabogan, just otuside Omagh. However, O’Kane was quick to point out that this was all subject to certain conditions.

“The loan was granted on the basis that we meet certain targets every year. We have to make sure that we increase membership every year by a certain percentage and that we are completely inclusive for the community as just two examples and to those ends we have made great progress”.

On the other side of town, the manager of Omagh Hospitals F.C., Brendan Morrisson, has experienced different fortunes.

“For whatever reason, we haven’t been able to get the same sort of funding that the GAA enjoys. However, it must be said that the local GAA clubs have done a great job of engaging the community, along with fundraising activities”.

The soccer side do not own their own pitches, nor do they have facilities in which their own players or visiting teams can change.

“Currently we use the council pitches, but if we were ever to push into the top division, we would be required to meet certain standards, to have our own pitch and stands etc. It’s just frustrating that there is such a disparity between the funding figures at the minute”.

With an opening allocation of £14.5 million and a proposed allocation of £13.2 million for Sport within the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the focus will now be very much on how the Department chooses to allocate the allotments for the three main sports in Northern Ireland.

 Both the IFA and the IRFU will be watching with interest to see whether the trend set by the past five years continues or whether a change in focus is revealed.

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