Hilditch Supports Sandy Row Boxing Club PDF Print E-mail

I support the motion, which has been tabled by my party colleagues.  It has been good to listen to the arguments on the amendments.

As a member of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, I acknowledge the work that has been and is being carried out by the stakeholders in the sport, which is referred to in the motion and the amendments.  Indeed, the work of the Committee is very much a work in progress, particularly as we continue to pursue the issues raised in the evidence sessions with the stakeholders, including the worrying allegations in the report from Sandy Row Amateur Boxing Club.  The motion seems to unite contributors, however, in trying to ensure that the funding promised by the Minister for the sport is allocated equitably across the community and fills the glaring void in provision for the game.  Therefore, like others, I welcome the £3 million investment in amateur boxing but wish to see that money distributed evenly and fairly throughout all our communities across Northern Ireland and, in particular, to see it bring in from the cold the Protestant and unionist communities, where boxing is currently very underrepresented and where the lack of sports clubs and investment is also evidenced.

The sporting community, as a whole, has suffered from decades of underfunding.  So, while we look forward to the commencement of the capital needs assessment of all clubs, there is concern at the outworkings of any funding programme, which has been alluded to in the last few minutes.  That could further exacerbate the situation.  Areas of underinvestment may again miss out because it has been difficult historically to establish and sustain a club in those areas, thus reducing eligibility to apply for the capital needs funding.  I ask the Minister to comment on that in her address.

To give an example of the differential in facility provision, I look no further than my constituency of East Antrim.  There is a good example of a well-run, firmly established club at Monkstown, at the greater Belfast end of the constituency .  It plays an integral part in the development of the sport, and I commend it for doing so.  However, the story changes somewhat as we move further through the constituency .  In the main town, Carrickfergus, there is a perfect example of the lack of investment and the gap in provision for the sport.  For many years, the Carrick club boxed out of an old World War II Nissen hut located in the grounds of the local Orange hall.  Mr Deputy Speaker, you can only imagine — I think you may even have seen it — what the conditions were like.  The boxers had to be totally dedicated to the sport even to set foot inside what can only loosely be described as a building.  The current academy uses the very dilapidated basement of a row of hot food bars.  Again, it is in very poor shape, and it is no encouragement to the development of the sport.  A piece of land has been earmarked and at least provisionally secured for a purpose-built building, but capital funding is not within reach at this stage.  That is a typical example of what the motion is attempting to highlight and address.  There are many more Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlons out there, but, under the current provisions of the sport, they may never get the chance if they come from a working-class Protestant area.

I was involved in sports administration for many years, and I have raised concerns around governance and structure in the sport.  I pay tribute to the many volunteers in the sporting community who put so much into sport in Northern Ireland, and boxing is no different.  However, it annoys me at times when some of today's social do-gooders and johnny-come-latelys advocate sport as a way of bringing communities together.  I pay tribute to those who have worked tirelessly over the last 40 years, when sport was the only conduit for bringing communities together, and did so through some of the darkest days in Northern Ireland's history.  They are all unsung heroes.  However, sometimes, if governance is ignored and not given priority or if the structures are not right, the scourge of sectarianism can rear its ugly head, and sport is no different from any other arm of our communities.  Many sports — football is one example — have made great strides in stamping out sectarianism and racism.  However, as the Minister knows only too well from the situation that arose in her constituency on Saturday at the Solitude stadium, when a small section of Cliftonville supporters behaved despicably, we cannot take our eye off the ball at any time.  We must deal with those unsavoury issues where and when they arise.  Boxing is no different.

A greater debate needs to be had on the structure of boxing and the way forward.  A lot more detail needs to be looked at, and the Department should take that seriously.  In supporting the motion, I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the Ulster Boxing Council, the county boards and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association deal with the matters that affect our communities.