COMMUNITIES Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA has instructed officials to work with Sport NI and NI Sports Forum to put in place immediate practical steps to support the sports sector.

Like businesses, sporting bodies and clubs face an uncertain time with the loss of revenue from matchday and various other sources of income, so the Minister has moved to ensure vital funds will continue to reach various programmes.

Outlining early measures to help the sector, the Minister said: “Sport NI will act this week to give security to funded Sports Governing Bodies, with relaxed protocols at this time. It will facilitate the immediate release of remaining year 2019/20 grant balances sending £1 million into club and high-performance programmes.

“In addition, Sport NI will move to ensure early release of 50 per cent of year 2020/21 grant awards into the club sector and 25 per cent of awards into the high-performance sector. This will release a further £1.4 million to funded sports.

“The remainder of these grants will be made available immediately when we have clarity on when sports programmes can begin again and also when the Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place during 2021.

“I have also asked my officials to work with Sport NI to develop a programme launch in early April to provide initial emergency financial relief to ensure that grassroots sports organisations can continue to function and provide the support that they have done to date. This programme will address immediate sustainability impacts during the lockdown period including ongoing costs associated with the closure of facilities.

“My officials, alongside Sport NI, will continue to work with Sports Governing Bodies to establish the longer-term financial challenges that sporting organisations face and how we can provide support.”

There was simply no choice but to cancel all sporting activity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with uncertainty as to when it can safely return.

The GAA has earmarked April 19 as a possible return, but that date seems highly improbably, as does soccer's hope of a return by the end of the month.

“The COVID-19 crisis had an immediate impact on sport and the decisions taken to cease all sporting activities, competitions and events, while extremely difficult, were the right ones to take,” added Minister Hargey.

“Sporting organisations at every level, from grassroots to professional operations, are facing serious financial challenges as a result of their competitions or major events being postponed or cancelled, the loss of income through games, coach education, youth camps and other fundraising activities.

“Sport will have a crucial role to help society deal with the aftermath of the emergency. It is therefore essential that sporting organisations and clubs are in a position to offer communities and individuals access to sport and physical activities as soon as it is safe to do so.”

The Minister reiterated her praise of sporting bodies who have already played a crucial part in the response to the health emergency with clubs rallying around their communities by helping the vulnerable and putting in place various skills challenges that can be safely taken from the home.

These have benefited both physical and mental wellbeing, while sport, in general, will play a vital role in helping society return to normality once this health emergency has ended.

“The resilience of the sporting organisations and those who take part in sport has been clearly demonstrated as clubs and volunteers have stepped up to the mark to help the most vulnerable in our society and I know that as time goes on that support will remain steadfast,” the Minister continued.

“My officials are working closely with Sport NI, the IFA, GAA, Ulster Rugby and other Governing Bodies to ensure that the significant weight of the sports sector supports our critical services in the weeks ahead.

“Sport and physical activity will be vital in raising the spirit and mood of our community as we come out of lockdown and self-isolation. I would encourage everyone, when we are through this crisis, to get out and support their local clubs and sporting organisations.

“Until that time, I know that the sports sector will do its utmost to help us as we navigate our way through these challenging times. In turn, I am committed to play my part in ensuring that the needs of the sports sector are not overlooked.”