Cross-border co-operation needed to ease restrictions on sports, NI minister says

Easing restrictions on sports played on an all-island basis will require the authorities on both sides of the border to move at the same time, a Stormont minister has said.

Sports minister Dierdre Hargey cited rugby and GAA as two key examples where decisions needed to be taken on an all-Ireland basis.

At the daily Covid-19 briefing, the minister also said a £500,000 (€560,000) hardship fund for under-pressure sporting clubs in Northern Ireland had been inundated with applications and she would now be looking at potentially increasing the funds.

Stormont’s recovery plan envisages the return of close physical contact sports in phase five. As with all aspects of the blueprint, there are no projected dates attached to that phase.

The Irish Government envisages rugby returning in phase five of its plan – projected for August 10 – and competitive GAA a phase earlier – projected for July 20.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Rugby will return in phase five (David Davies/PA)</figcaption>
Rugby will return in phase five (David Davies/PA)

The authorities on both sides of the border are in agreement that crowd numbers attending games will be restricted indefinitely.

Ms Hargey said her department was engaging with the main sporting codes on what measures could be taken to reduce the infection risk at sporting events while the world waits on a vaccine.

“I’m looking at a framework in terms of that engagement at the moment,” she said.

“We’re obviously engaging with authorities in the south, because rugby and GAA for example is played on an all-Ireland basis.

“So we need to make sure that those steps are taken at the same time, because of the nature of how those sports are played.”

The minister said she was also engaging with sporting officials in England, Scotland and Wales on what sorts of measures will be required.

“And we will be engaging with the chief medical officer (Dr Michael McBride) and the health minister (Robin Swann) as we start to move through,” she said.

“So we’re not going to sit about, we’re not waiting until we get to step five, we’re proactively looking at these issues at the moment, we’re working with the sporting codes to see what measures could be put in place to minimise risk and then that’s going to be set against the matrix (Stormont Executive’s decision making matrix) in terms of having the medical advice to see if that can be done safely in a way that keeps the R number (infection rate) down but also ensures that our health service can cope with any increased pressure.

“So I am hopeful again in the common weeks and as we start to move through this in the coming months that we can start to progress on some of that work.”

On the potential extending of the hardship scheme, which has seen clubs able to apply for £2,000 (€2,200) grants, she added: “That was completely inundated there was a huge demand for it.

“We’re reviewing those applications at the moment in order to get the money out.

“And indeed, I’m going to be reviewing that again to see if we can put more into that to allow another tranche of organisations to come through.”

The minister said she was also focused on seeing what could be done for young people missing out on physical activity.

“We have had really constructive conversations throughout this period which is difficult for many organisations, but also particularly for children and young people who now aren’t getting their daily exercise,” she said.

“They’re not engaged in any activity programmes through their local sporting clubs.

“So we are looking at this as part of the recovery phase.”