With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 4 and 10 together.
Responsibility for improving the quality of stadia in Irish League football rests with the owners of the venues. However, Sport Northern Ireland, which is responsible for the development of sport, including the distribution of funding, runs a number of programmes to help owners of sport venues, including Irish League venues, to improve the quality of their stadia. These include a stadia safety programme and a soccer strategy playing facilities programme.
Responsibility for encouraging and promoting television coverage of Irish League football rests with the governing body of football in Northern Ireland, the Irish Football Association (IFA), and Irish League football clubs. Improving the visual coverage of football, including television coverage, is also one of the key recommendations of the soccer strategy initiative, which is being implemented by the IFA, with assistance from Sport Northern Ireland. In line with that recommendation, the IFA recently agreed a new four-year contract with Sky TV for televising major Northern Ireland matches.
That deal covers full international games, under-21 international games and Irish Premier League games. The live screening of the Cliftonville versus Linfield league game was the first match to be broadcast under this contract.
Will the Minister agree that Irish League football is an improving product, evidenced by, as he has said, the recent Sky TV coverage of the Linfield versus Cliftonville game, and that the stadia and training facilities should similarly improve in order to further enhance the game in Northern Ireland? Furthermore, following speculation at the weekend about the future viability of Windsor Park, what support does Sport Northern Ireland contribute to improve the quality of Irish League stadia? In the light of the entry requirements, is there likely to be further support?
Very few Irish League grounds meet UFEA standards, and, therefore, work must be done to improve spectator safety and comfort at their venues.
Under the programme, Sport Northern Ireland has already made offers of awards to five Irish League clubs — Ballymena United Football Club, Cliftonville Football Club, Crusaders Football Club, Donegal Celtic Football Club and Portadown Football Club, which are collectively worth approximately £3 million. Over the past two years, Sport NI has provided an additional £610,000 from the soccer strategy for improvements to Irish League grounds that were used for the staging of the UEFA under-19 football championship finals in 2005.
We will look at all bids as they come in, including bids from Linfield Football Club, if it wishes to make one.
Personally, I have not had contact with them as that is not my task. That is a matter between the Irish League and the television companies. I understand that the Irish League negotiated a successful contract with Sky TV to the tune of £10 million over four years, which will lead to a significant cash injection into local football.
Will the Minister provide his Department’s assessment of the value of the Setanta Cup in view of its increasing popularity? Will he encourage a Celtic cup competition to include participation of Welsh, Scottish and Irish teams, which would undoubtedly improve the quality of football and create greater revenue for spending on local stadia?
The Setanta Cup has been a success story and has brought fresh money into Irish League football, and I look forward to the completion of negotiations for the Celtic cup and to the extension of the Setanta Cup competition to include clubs from Scotland and Wales, which will raise the quality of competition that exists in football in Northern Ireland.
The IFA has made it clear that a maximum capacity of 14,000 is not enough for it to operate as it would wish. Therefore, it is imperative that it gets a larger stadium for its matches. If it does get a larger stadium, there will be more money to spread around Northern Ireland football in general. The IFA has made it clear that it needs a larger stadium, and if we choose to do up one stadium in Northern Ireland, it will lead to less money going to other clubs.