Sinn Fein Minister Deirdre Hargey accused of failing football clubs in Northern Ireland over stadia funding delays

Communities minister Deirdre Hargey has been accused of “failing football” because a scheme to upgrade football stadia in Northern Ireland has not been progressed.

By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Thursday, 10th March 2022, 12:52 pm
Updated Thursday, 10th March 2022, 8:23 pm

But the minister hit back, stating that legal advice had informed her that she needed the support of the Executive to approve changes to the scheme.

She told Stormont’s Communities Committee that she would have a paper distributed to ministerial colleagues today if Northern Ireland had a functioning Executive.

The Executive had originally endorsed the £36.2 million scheme in March 2011. However, following repeated delays, the current minister ordered a “refresh and re-engagement” exercise.

Children play football beside Solitude which is home to Cliftonville FC in north Belfast.

Last month, Ms Hargey announced she would be unable to progress the programme to redevelop local sub-regional football stadia due to the absence of a functioning Executive following the resignation of the DUP’s Paul Givan as First Minister.

During an appearance before her scrutiny committee, Ms Hargey said: “I understand completely the concerns that have been raised regarding the programme due to the uncertainty around a non-functioning Executive. We have been continuing to investigate all options available for progressing this programme within this current mandate.

“I am continuing to look at legal routes to see what we can do to progress this and get it moving.”

DUP MLA Stephen Dunne said: “It is incredibly disappointing that we are here, over two years, three months into your term in office.

“This issue has been in your in-tray since then and there is great disappointment right across the local football community, right across Northern Ireland.

“Minister, when will this money be rolled out?”

Ms Hargey said: “From the outset it was clear that the existing programme that got Executive approval back in 2011 was clearly out of date, it didn’t meet the needs of the clubs. We carried out a refresh and re-engagement exercise at pace.

“It took a bit of time to analyse that and as a result the programme has changed, just because of the passage of time. I was always clear that change would require going back to the Executive for the final sign-off.

“I never anticipated at any point that a party would walk out of the Executive. I always said I wanted this programme to progress before the end of the mandate.

“Notwithstanding the difficulties we now have without a functioning Executive, I am still continuing to look to do all that I can to get this across the line.”

Mr Dunne said: “Minister, with all due respect, you have failed football.”

The minister responded: “It is not the fault of football or indeed me that we don’t have a functioning Executive.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen asked: “On May 10 2021, at question time you advised that you wanted to take the proposals on the way forward to spend this money to the Executive in the coming weeks.

“When did it become apparent that the coming weeks was not going to be achievable?”

Ms Hargey said: “Because the programme was changing it was clear more analysis and consideration needed to be done. At question time, my answers are at a point in time of where I would have hoped to have taken the programme.”

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan asked if work on the programme was now finished.

Ms Hargey said: “I have proposals there, so I would have an Executive paper ready to present to the Executive if it got up and running today.

“The work that is continuing is the analysis around costs. I have written to the Finance Minister around the likelihood of increased resource going to this programme.”

Mr Durkan said: “I felt you might be leaving it as close to the end of the mandate as possible for dramatic effect and to possibly maximise electoral benefit. Can you categorically state that is not the case?”

Ms Hargey said: “I heard you say this in the chamber and I was flummoxed by it. I always said I wanted to deliver the programme before the end of the mandate.”