Subregional Stadia Programme for Soccer

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 7 March 2022.

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Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP 2:00, 7 March 2022

2. Mr Robinson asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the delivery date of the subregional stadia programme for soccer. (AQO 3221/17-22)

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

4. Dr Aiken asked the Minister for Communities to outline the timeline for commencing the subregional stadia programme for soccer. (AQO 3223/17-22)

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

8. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister for Communities how the subregional stadia programme for soccer funding can benefit the development of football clubs in South Antrim. (AQO 3227/17-22)

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2, 4 and 8 together.

In the absence of a functioning executive, I have undertaken a number of action to progress the programme. I met representatives from the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the NI Football League (NIFL) to reaffirm my commitment to the programme and to provide clarity on the work undertaken to progress it. I followed that by writing to all member clubs of NIFL and to Derry City. I intend to meet the IFA and NIFL again in the coming weeks.

I issued a letter to the Finance Minister to seek assistance from his Department in addressing the cost increases that inflation has brought to the programme and to ask how to secure the additional budget required to cover those costs. I have also written twice to my Executive colleagues. The initial correspondence was to highlight the progress to date, including the detail of my request for assistance from the Department of Finance, and to seek colleagues' support for my efforts to advance this important flagship programme.

In my follow-up letter, I clarified that I would be grateful for my colleagues' views and willingness to help the progress of the programme in the absence of an Executive. I can confirm that I have received some responses. The Finance Minister replied that he would be keen to work with me on additional financial assistance to look at the uncontrollable increases in construction costs, for example. I have some support from some Ministers on progressing the programme and doing all that we can to get around the impediment of having no Executive. I still await the response of a few other Ministers to my letters.

I have consistently stated that the programme will benefit the entire football family, including clubs. The need for a spread of investment and accessibility to improve facilities across the region has been a common theme throughout the review exercise. In addition to supporting increased participation and developing more sustainable and inclusive family-oriented facilities, the programme will provide an opportunity to contribute to the delivery of wider Executive priorities, including the social, economic and cultural needs of communities.

I reiterate my commitment to investigate all options available to progress this important programme in this mandate.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Does the Minister agree that, if her party and others in the Assembly joined the DUP to oppose the protocol, the money could be distributed to all those clubs tomorrow morning? Clubs such as Coleraine and Limavady United need the money urgently to improve their grounds.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

If we had a functioning Executive, I could bring a formal paper to them on the financing and on moving ahead to the next phase. I do not know, frankly, what the protocol has to do with the subregional stadia programme. I will leave it there.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the Minister for her answer. Minister, in your response, you said that you had asked all Ministers to respond as to whether you can release the funding. Which Ministers have not responded?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

It would be better to tell you which Ministers have, if that is OK. The Ministers of Finance, Justice, Education and Infrastructure have responded.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Minister for her answer. I think of Ballyclare Comrades in my constituency, who have exciting redevelopment plans that would greatly benefit the club and the town. Can the Minister gave an assurance that there will be no more delays in delivering this long-awaited programme? What steps have been taken to progress the funding since assurances were given to clubs in February that it remained a flagship Executive project?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

To be clear, this is still a flagship Executive project, committed to under New Decade, New Approach (NDNA). I made a commitment to deliver it as quickly as possible. I communicated with colleagues around the Executive table on the concerns about progress because of the need for Executive approval. I am exploring what we can do to progress stadia development in the mandate, notwithstanding some of the impediments, namely, having no functioning Executive. I await responses from the Ministers who have not yet responded and am still looking at all the legal routes to ensure that we can progress this. In the meantime, I continue to meet the IFA and NIFL. We had good engagement on getting clubs ready to look at their needs and their capital stadia needs. I will meet them again in coming weeks to progress that work.

Photo of Aisling Reilly Aisling Reilly Sinn Féin

Minister, do you agree that the subregional stadium programme, similar to much-needed investment in the health service, was effectively abandoned when the DUP walked out of the Executive to put their own electoral interests above those of their constituents and wider society?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The fact that there is no functioning Executive presents big challenges with budgets, sign-off and approval on a lot of the programmes and other spending. We see that from other Ministers. I continue to do all that I can to progress this vital programme, along with all the others in my Department that need Executive approval. I continue to work with the IFA and NIFL to do that. The programme will have a tangible benefit for clubs on the ground and makes sure that benefits are spread across the North. I am committed to doing all that I can in this mandate to ensure that the programme moves forward.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Soccer clubs are infuriated by delays in receiving payment from the subregional programme. Can you clarify whether they will receive payment in the mandate? Will you release the legal advice received by your Department in relation to the subregional stadia programme?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Clubs are not in a position to receive the payment right away. That is not where we are in the programme. We are identifying the needs and the capital expenditure that is required and looking at how we can meet clubs' needs with the budget that we have. Additional work is being done, which is why I wrote to the Finance Minister, because of the timescale when the programme was first agreed. We are seeing an increase in capital costs across the board, and hospitals, housing and other projects have been impacted. We need to work all of that out to ensure that we can cover the controllable costs.

The Finance Minister responded by saying that he is willing to do all that he can, working with me and other Ministers, to make sure that we can progress the programme. As I said, I have asked Ministers around the Executive table to work with me to overcome any impediment from there being no functioning Executive, and I will continue to engage with them over the next couple of weeks.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance 2:15, 7 March 2022

The overdue release of the subregional stadia programme funding is really limiting the extremely positive impact that clubs, such as Glentoran in my constituency of East Belfast, can have in our community. Will the Minister repeat the names of the Executive Ministers from whom she has received a response in support of the fund and state whether she will be progressing the terms of the working group's recommendations?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The working group continues to meet, and the team in my Department that works on the subregional stadia programme continues to meet the working group. As I said, I have met the IFA and NIFL about progressing that work as quickly as we can, by identifying clubs' needs and overcoming the issues that I mentioned around inflation and cost rises for materials. I can confirm that responses to the two letters that I issued in recent weeks have been received from the Ministers of Finance, Justice, Education and Infrastructure.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

To be absolutely clear, is the Minister saying that, contrary to what she initially told the House, which was that funding could not be released without Executive approval, it could now be released on foot of a positive response from other Ministers? If so, has she got the necessary money?

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

The money has been secured. It is an Executive commitment. I have been clear in stating that the money has been secured for the subregional stadia programme and for Casement Park under the regional stadia programme. That there is no functioning Executive is still an impediment, but I have communicated to Ministers my intent to progress the subregional stadia programme where I can in the absence of a functioning Executive by asking them to work with me. We still need to work through the legal impediments that may arise as a result of there being no functioning Executive, however. I continue to engage proactively with Ministers and the sporting bodies — the IFA and NIFL — to ensure that clubs are in a state of readiness so that, when the programme opens, clubs can apply to it seamlessly, enabling the process to be quickened up.