A WEST Belfast soccer club will have to drastically cut training sessions for its underage teams due to the unavailability of its usual training pitch due to a rise in demand.
St Oliver Plunkett Football Club regularly use Sally Gardens Playing Fields in Poleglass for training. The pitch is a Belfast City Council owned facility.
The club say they have been told by the Council that hiring of the facility "will be significantly reduced" in the coming months, which the club say will effectively "grind to a halt" training provision for over 300 young people predominantly under the age of 13.
St Oliver Plunkett say that from October, they will be forced to reduce midweek sessions from seven hours to two hours. This will reduce to one single hour from January.
The issue for the club comes as demand for GAA bookings at Sally Gardens has increased significantly. In recent months the Andersonstown News and North Belfast News have been reporting on the chronic level of pitch provision in Belfast, particularly for GAA clubs in the North of the city.
Despite raising their concerns with Belfast City Council, the club feel that GAA is being prioritised over other sports.
Our Chairperson, Stephen McCourt, has penned an open letter regarding the lack of Gaelic Games pitch provision in North Belfasthttps://t.co/Au73MzyvuJ@patrickpearses @ardoynegac @NaomhEannaCLG @AontroimGAA @CamogieAontroim @AntrimLGFA @NorthBelfastNew @belfastcc— Wolfe Tones GAC - Greencastle (@CLGWolfeTones) August 19, 2023
In a statement, St Oliver Plunkett Football Club Committee said: "Despite engaging with Belfast City Council we have received no intention to meet to raise our concerns.
"We have liaised with our local political representatives who haven't been able to persuade GAA or Belfast City Council to meet and at least listen to our concerns.
"We see this not only as an attack on our ability to provide services to club members but to the wider community as a whole.
"Belfast City Council have eluded to an agreement reached at Council for the prioritisation of usage to one particular sport in return for financial investment but despite requests to have sight of any legal agreement nothing has ever been provided.
"We have gone public after careful consideration and had hoped there would be some level of engagement with all parties concerned but feel we have over the past few years exhausted all avenues."
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said a lack of facilities was "clearly hampering" the work of sports clubs in the area.
“The Colin area has one the largest populations of young people in the whole of the North, with demand for sporting facilities constantly growing," he said.
“Local football and GAA clubs go above and beyond to provide sporting opportunities for our young people. However, this work is clearly being hampered by a lack of facilities.
“Recent investments in pitch and leisure facilities are welcome, but there is still some way to go to make up for years of underfunding and austerity.
“Belfast City Council has a duty to develop new facilities and to ensure clubs do not have to compete for access. We will be engaging with local clubs to look at ways of progressing such plans.
“It is fantastic that interest in sport is growing in the Colin area. People Before Profit will continue to work to deliver the resources required to match it.”
In response, a Belfast City Council spokesperson said: “In April 2018, elected members agreed to support the Ulster GAA’s development action plan for Belfast which identified Sally Gardens as one of five development hubs across the city, following significant investment. They also agreed to put in place specific arrangements for GAA bookings at this site, while still facilitating bookings from other sports.
“Demand for GAA bookings at Sally Gardens has increased significantly in recent months, and our team have been working with a number of local sports clubs, as well as political representatives, to accommodate and balance all requests for bookings across our facilities.
“In September 2023, elected members agreed to commission a new ten-year pitches strategy to address the growing demand for provision across Belfast, following increased participation in different sports.
"A public consultation is due to take place in early 2024 and will provide an opportunity for local sports clubs to help shape future provision.”