Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 03 April 2008

Sports Governing Bodies

3 April 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Jim Shannon

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I will refer now to the response from the three governing bodies — the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Ulster Rugby — in relation to a request for their attendance at today’s meeting. I refer members to the written response of 26 March from those organisations, which you received on Monday. Do any members wish to comment?

Mr McCarthy:
I propose that we note the response.

The Chairperson:
Kieran proposes that we note the correspondence, and Wallace seconds that.

Lord Browne:
No: I wish to record my disappointment at the response from the three governing bodies. I am totally amazed by it. It shows a complete lack of professionalism. Their refusal to come along here this afternoon shows contempt for the Committee. They are unelected representatives, whereas we have been democratically elected.

As the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) provides generous support to those sporting bodies, it would have been good manners if the representatives from each of those bodies showed some courtesy to the Committee.

I have some interest in sport, and a particular passion for soccer. I also have complete sympathy and admiration for soccer supporters. However, I find it difficult to understand the attitude of the IFA. It does not have a stadium because of its lack of foresight, not because there has been a delay in reaching a decision on a national stadium. It is interesting to note that the IFA is the only association that does not have a stadium. The other two sports have stadia, but it is the IFA that is in the greatest difficulty.

The Chairperson:
Soccer has most to gain from a national stadium.

Lord Browne:
That is true. It is an indictment of the IFA’s committee — not of this Committee or any of the elected representatives. It is the fault of those who run soccer in Northern Ireland. By refusing to meet us, they are somehow trying to blame the Committee for the situation in which they find themselves. The Committee should express its disgust at the way in which it has been treated by the three governing bodies. I suggest that we should take some action by writing to the presidents of the three governing bodies. I am open to other suggestions.

Mr McCausland:
I was appalled.

Lord Browne:
Committee members are all dedicated to working for the betterment of sport in Northern Ireland. We are giving up our time here, and we do want to co-operate with the governing bodies, but on this occasion, we have been treated in a disgusting manner.

Mr McCausland:
I was appalled that the content of the letter was leaked before we received it. When did the Committee Clerk receive the letter?

The Chairperson:
The date stamp shows that the letter was received on 31 March. [Laughter.]

Mr McCausland:
Well done. That is why I am not a policeman — I would not have picked up on that date stamp. When was the item broadcast on the radio?

Mr McNarry:
It was broadcast on the radio on 27 March.

Mr McCausland:
It is clear that the letter was leaked by someone in the sporting world. This is a serious issue. It is doubly problematic, as it was compounded by the fact that Howard Wells decided to speak on the radio about the matter when he had no need to do so. He knew that the letter would not have arrived, and yet he decided to go ahead. That shows arrogance and contempt for the democratic process and for this Committee. It is just bad manners. It says more about Howard Wells than it does about us.

I am also interested to note that all three gentlemen have suddenly become fully qualified accountants. In their response to the Committee’s invitation, they are able to say:

“We are convinced that the Business Plan will provide for a Stadium which will not only cover its operating costs but will also provide a revenue stream for the sports involved.”

They had been told that the permanent secretary would not sign off on the business case because it did not stack up, and that he had all sorts of reservations. Despite that, Howard Wells, Danny Murphy and Mike Reid know better than the permanent secretary. We will find out in a few weeks whether they know better than the accountants and the experts in the Department of Finance and Personnel. Maybe Howard Wells knows more about accountancy than he does about football.

Mr McNarry:
The letter is dated 26 March 2008, and has been stamped as received on 31 March. Since Nelson was asking, news of it broke on the BBC on 27 March. I was absolutely astonished to take a call from the BBC asking me whether I would like to make a comment on a joint letter from the leaders of the three sports bodies. That was the first I heard of it; I had to ask what the letter was about.

I take it that that letter was the first contact on the matter, and that there was no text or email received before that. I think that it was leaked for a purpose. I am concerned that two of the sports would write to us in this way, in triplicate with another sport, particularly when we had made arrangements for two of the sports — football and Irish rugby — to attend the Committee, and they had agreed to attend. I chaired the meeting in the Chairperson’s absence, and I recall that I asked members whether we should cancel because one of the sports was not coming. Prompted by Jim Shannon, the consensus was that we would go ahead. On Francie Brolly’s initiative, it was proposed that we should write to the GAA to ask it to reconsider. I take it that we did write to the GAA and ask it to reconsider. It would be useful to see our letter to the GAA and what it was that we were asking it to reconsider. Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that —

The Chairperson:
David, we could probably get that in the next five minutes.

Mr McNarry:
OK. That would be useful. This Committee has been slagged off, and there are people who blame the 10-year delay on us and say that it is our fault that no decision has been made. My understanding of the meeting that we wanted to have with the sports bodies was that we now had a business plan to consider, and we wanted to hear the views of the three bodies about the plan, which was new to us. It would appear that that business plan was not very new to the three sports bodies; nor was it very new to the Strategic Investment Board (SIB). Typically, maybe, we, as elected representatives, were the last people in the chain to see the plan. I am extremely disappointed about where we are.

The three sports bodies have done themselves a great disservice, and the result is a very serious matter, because a very serious precedent has probably been created. Jointly, they have deemed the Committee irrelevant. They say that they do not need to discuss the stadium with us and that they are waiting on the big boys — the Ministers — to take the decisions. That puts the Committee in a difficult position vis à vis everyone else whom it wants to invite to come here, given its statutory entitlement to demand people to attend.

I do not want those three people through the door now, because of their behaviour. I have lost respect for them, but I do not want to lose respect for the bodies that they represent. If we decide to write to the organisations, we should write to their presidents. I agree with Wallace: we should not pussyfoot around; our letters should express what we feel, and we should use words such as “disgust”.

We must also protect the Committee and the project from what has happened. I do not need to know now, but I would like to know what ramifications there will be for the Committee if these people — two of whom agreed to come to see us and reneged, and the third who declined our request to attend — do not attend a Committee meeting. We are a deliberate scrutiny Committee. If those three bodies do not attend a Committee meeting, it will mean that any other organisation, such as the Arts Council of Northern Ireland or Sport Northern Ireland — I do not want to categorise any organisation or put the blame on anyone — could refuse to meet us because the GAA, football and rugby organisations did not meet us.

What will we do about it? Committees of this nature cannot indulge boycotts; that would be a recipe for disaster for this institution and for the concept of democracy. That said, we should deal with it, but we must not allow it to cloud or prejudice our opinions, and it must not work against the sporting bodies. I hope that the sporting bodies, internally, take action to put right the situation. I have lost confidence and respect in the three people who have appended their names to the letter, but I will not lose confidence or respect for the sports that are involved.

Mr Shannon:
I was disappointed by the tone of the letter and in the fact that the three organisations took the decision together. It flies in the face of what we had hoped for; we had hoped that a couple of the sports, at least, would have been represented here. They have shown disrespect for the Committee, as Wallace and other members have said. They have also distanced themselves from the Committee, and that is a tragedy. Are they aware that they have done that?

As Wallace suggested, we should write to the presidents of the organisations and bypass the chief executives and provincial director — or whatever his title is. I agree with Nelson. The response from the three organisations states:

“We are convinced that the Business Plan will provide for a Stadium which will not only cover its operating costs but will also provide a revenue stream for the sports involved.”

That is completely at odds with the business plan. Who wrote that on behalf of the three people? It is disappointing, but we must be clear that although the three individuals are at odds with the Committee, the sports — and those who play sports — are not.

We will do our best for all the people who play football, rugby and Gaelic football; our commitment to that has not changed at all, but the situation is greatly disappointing.

Mr D Bradley:
It is marvellous that those three sporting bodies are co-operating with each other. A number of years back, it would have been unimaginable for representatives of the GAA, Irish rugby and the IFA to be co-operating on a project.

Mr McNarry:
With all due respect Dominic, that is not what we are saying. We are talking about three individuals. We do not know whether they speak for their respective organisations — I hope that they do not.

The Chairperson:
Let Dominic finish.

Mr D Bradley:
Presumably those individuals do speak for their organisations. Nonetheless, it is a sign of how we are moving forward in Northern Ireland that those three sporting bodies can get together and co-operate. That should be noted, and I praise them for that.

I warn against over-heating feelings about the sporting bodies’ decision not to attend the Committee meeting. Representatives of each of those three bodies have already attended Committee meetings this year. Members have had ample opportunity to question them about any aspects of their policies, their attitudes to the stadium, or whatever.

Mr McNarry:
We have not had an opportunity to ask them about the business plan.

Mr D Bradley:
To say that the sporting bodies have insulted the Committee in some way is not true. They have attended Committee meetings and been most open and receptive to the questions that were put to them. The sporting bodies have made their attitude about the stadium abundantly clear — we all know what they feel about it. Behind their decision not to come here is perhaps a wariness of being drawn into a political storm regarding the stadium. If that is the reason for their non-attendance, I support them. In no way should those three sporting bodies be used as — forgive the pun — a political football in the entire stadium debate.

Mr McCartney:
I have not seen the Committee’s letter requesting representatives of the sporting bodies to attend in the first instance. I assume that they were invited in order to discuss the business plan.

Mr McNarry:
Another reason that we invited them to attend was that we have a number of new members on the Committee. You are a new Committee member — and you are very welcome — and you have not had the opportunity to hear what their views are; nor has Ken Robinson.

Mr McCartney:
I do not know the exact reasons why those sporting bodies were asked to attend. However, it seems that in one breath, we dismiss their views on the business plan, saying that they are not accountants; and in another, we ask them to come to a Committee meeting to discuss the business plan. We need to make up our minds about what we were trying to achieve by bringing them here.

Mr McNarry:
The business plan covered more than one option — it contained four or five different options. We have not had an opportunity to discuss those other options with the sporting bodies.

Mr McCartney:
I have not seen the business plan.

Mr D Bradley:
There is no reference to the business plan in that letter.

Mr McCartney:
As Wallace said, if representatives of the sporting bodies were statutorily required to attend — or if we had a statutory requirement to see them — we would have to address that issue. If they had refused to attend an evidence-based session, we would be obliged to remind them of our responsibility. However, they replied that they have nothing more to add on the issues that we invited them to discuss. That is perhaps a deliberate statement about the way that the entire situation has been handled.

As far back as May 2003, the Maze consultation panel had concluded its findings. The four political parties and the three sporting bodies — at a meeting that I attended in the Stormont Hotel — all welcomed the plan at that time. They agreed that it was the way forward. Since then, the process has unravelled. The sporting bodies may not want to be caught in the middle of such a controversy. They have stated clearly that they are in favour of the stadium and their reasons for that.

It is also possible that the three sporting bodies have considered the possible revenue streams and been convinced that the plan is workable. Other people may tell them otherwise; that is when the debate will take off. However, the GAA, Irish rugby and the Irish Football Association have managed to run their respective houses in a particular way; some have been better than others, and I am not going to be pejorative about that.

Nevertheless, it ill behoves us to tell them that they cannot run stadiums or know about revenue streams, when we look at some of the stadiums that have been built and those undertaken be built. We must be careful that the matter is not seen as a single request and that there is not a big debate going on; or that politics is played with the decision, and they may not want to be involved. If they are telling the Committee that they do not want to be involved, it is fair for them to put the issue back to us and say that if we sort out the political process, they might have a rational debate. The political process was decided in May 2003 by all the parties —

Mr McNarry:
No.

Mr McCartney:
David Campbell was the chairperson. I —

Mr McNarry:
My party has had a change of leadership and, therefore, my party has had a change of policy. That is on record.

Mr McCartney:
It is not on record. I sat on the Long Kesh/Maze consultation panel —

Mr McNarry:
My party did not send any representative under the leadership of Sir Reg Empey.

Mr McCartney:
Yes; and Sir Reg made it known through correspondence that his party still supported the findings of the Maze consultation panel. Nowhere on record did he say that he countered that view. It would be very remarkable —

Mr McNarry:
Raymond and Mr Chairperson, we are making politics out of —

The Chairperson:
I will ask Kieran McCarthy to speak as he has to leave soon.

Mr McCarthy:
It is unfortunate that we are where we are. I accept what the sporting bodies say in their letter, and Dominic has already said what I think. The sporting bodies have nothing more to add to what they said earlier, and I respect that. My only disappointment was that Committee members did not receive the letter before it featured on the airwaves. I appeal to members to try to watch their language and to ensure that everyone can work together on the issue. So much is at stake, and we want to see the eventual stadium built in this place for everyone.

Mr McNarry:
No, we do not. We have not taken a decision on that. You cannot say that.

Mr McCarthy:
That is the way that it is heading. If we do not come together and agree, we will lose everything, and that is the last thing that everyone wants. At the end of the day, this Committee will not be making the decision: it will be for other Committees, or the Executive and the Finance Minister, to make the decision. I hope that we can proceed as far as possible and work together.

The Chairperson:
We all know that there are strongly held opinions on the matter.

Mr McCartney:
I want to make a point about the leak. As politicians, we must be careful about lecturing other people about leaking documents. If information is leaked, we can express our disappointment. However, I am sure that the three sporting bodies would say that it ill behoves anyone in politics to lecture people about leaking documents.

The Chairperson:
We will have a brief comment from Nelson and Jim, and then we will make a decision.

Mr McCausland:
Raymond made the point about leaks. Generally, that happens when a particular document is being secreted away and hidden, never to be made public; then, somehow, it happens to find its way into the public domain because someone leaked it. We are dealing here with something very different. The letter was sent on 26 March, and we received it a few days later. The sporting bodies knew that we would receive it. There would be nothing to be gained if one were totally upfront and not disingenuous about the matter. If one is upfront about the matter, one simply sends a letter and lets the recipient reacted accordingly.

In this case, however, the leaking of the letter had — and could have had— no other purpose than to try to exploit the situation; although I do not think that it was successful. I was asked to talk about the matter on the radio on the morning that the letter was leaked, and I declined because I felt that it was inappropriate, in view of the fact that the Committee had not seen the letter. Having said that, I do not disagree with what David McNarry said that day; I thought that he handled it extremely well. In fairness, Howard Wells did not come out of the matter at all well.

There are leaks, and there are leaks, but this was something different. It was not as though something was being leaked to the public that would never have become public knowledge. It would have been in the public domain in a matter of days. There was a tactic behind the leak, and it does not bode well with the individual who leaked the letter or with the person who spoke on the radio. There was no need for that person to talk on the radio, and if he had not talked on the radio, David McNarry would not have talked on the radio. There was only a discussion on the radio because Howard Wells was already there. The radio station decided to run the interview with Howard Wells, even if no politicians turned up or commented. That was inappropriate.

I support what Wallace and others have said about writing to the presidents because I am not sure whether the letter was agreed by everyone in those organisations.

Mr Shannon:
My question is in relation to the comment that I made about the sports. We want to keep our strong relationship with those governing bodies. Concerning the IFA, I have said it before and I will say it again — Howard Wells definitely does not speak for Northern Ireland supporters. Ninety-seven per cent of Northern Ireland supporters do not want a national stadium at Maze/Long Kesh. That is a fact: not made up by Jim Shannon or by anyone else, but the outcome of a poll of supporters. I have said all along that Howard Wells should contact the grass roots supporters clubs and speak to the people whom he purports to represent. If he had done so, he would not have put his name to that letter.

Mr D Bradley:
I second Kieran’s proposal that we should note the letter.

Mr McNarry:
I second Wallace’s proposal that we write to express our disappointment and disgust with those three signatories.

The Chairperson:
OK. There are two proposals.

Mr Shannon:
May I make a point —

The Chairperson:
With respect, Jim, there is only one proposal. However, there is an amendment.

Mr McCartney:
Nelson made a point about the leaking of the letter: if the letter was leaked to embarrass the Committee, the Committee wants to note its displeasure.

Mr McNarry:
If the letter was sent on 26 March, and we received it on 31 March, a second-class stamp was used. That is just how much contempt they were showing for us.

The Chairperson:
Wallace, the first proposal emanated from you. Do you want to re-state your proposal?

Lord Browne:
My proposal is that the Committee’s letter states that the Committee wishes to express “disappointment that the three officials were unable to take up our offer to come along”. David wants to add “disgust” to that wording — perhaps, “disgusted” should be used?

Mr McNarry:
You said “express our disgust”.

Mr McCausland:
I think that you are better sounding pained and hurt. “Disappointment” is a much better word. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
OK, the proposal is that the Committee’s letter includes the wording: “to express our disappointment as a Committee at their refusal to accept our offer”. There is also an amendment to that, as distinct from a separate proposal. Is it a separate proposal or an amendment?

Mr Shannon:
Mr Chairperson, you have to rule on that — that is your job.

Mr D Bradley:
I think that it is a separate proposal; we cannot amend Wallace’s proposal by saying that we should then note it.

Mr Shannon:
Is that not a direct negative, in which case, we vote on the proposal and members say yea or nay? If the proposal falls, Dominic will make his proposal.

The Chairperson:
Can we accept the way that Jim has outlined as the way to proceed — that the proposal, as tabled by Wallace, is the proposal and that the other proposal is essentially a direct negative? Therefore, we will run with the first proposal. Members who are in favour of Wallace’s proposal, please raise your hands — Mr McNarry, Mr Shannon, Mr McCausland and Lord Browne — that amounts to four. Members who are opposed to Wallace’s proposal, please raise your hands — Mr McCarthy, Mr Bradley, Mr McCartney and Mr McElduff — that amounts to four. What does that tell us?

Mr Shannon:
You can or cannot exercise your vote, Chairperson.

The Chairperson:
I will seek guidance on the procedure.

Mr D Bradley:
It is a draw.

Mr McNarry:
Who is playing politics now?

Mr D Bradley:
It is a 4-4 draw.

The Chairperson:
We are not going to proceed down that road and take that particular course of action.

Mr McCausland:
May I make a further proposal that we write to the three sports bodies expressing our disappointment that the letter was put into the public domain before it had even arrived at the Assembly; in addition, in the case of the IFA, expressing our disappointment that its chief executive appeared on the radio before the letter had arrived, thus compounding the issue?

The Chairperson:
OK; that is a further proposal.

Mr D Bradley:
We have no evidence about the source of the leak.

Mr McCausland:
All that is clear is that the letter was leaked either at their end or at our end. If it had arrived in my pigeonhole, I could have leaked it — Wallace could have leaked it; anyone could have leaked it. However, the point is that the letter had not even arrived in the pigeonholes by the time that it was leaked. If those responsible for the leak had waited until after the 31 March when the letter had arrived with the Committee, and instead leaked it, say, two days ago, we could never have known what happened. However, we know that somewhere somebody leaked the letter — unless the postman is opening up people’s mail. The two dates are there. It happened somewhere in the sports world. We are not saying who did it; we are simply expressing our disappointment that the leak happened.

Mr McNarry:
Can we take this matter seriously? I am not suggesting that we are not. I mentioned earlier about setting a precedent. These people have thumbed their noses at the Committee, and that it is not right under any circumstances.

Mr D Bradley:
That is your view, but not everybody here agrees with it.

Mr McCarthy:
They were here before —

The Chairperson:
David, if you could conclude on the debating aspect now, please. We have taken a vote —

Mr McNarry:
If we have any balls on this Committee, we should show them. If we have not, we will just have to knuckle down and allow this matter to develop into a political nonsense. I have certainly been trying to keep politics out of sport. The three bodies have shown contempt for this Committee — it is they who have taken a political stand, not us.

Mr D Bradley:
You are entitled to your view, but not everybody agrees with it.

Mr McNarry:
So, are we to be split politically; nationalists, republicans and the Alliance Party? Is that the way that we are going to do it?

Mr D Bradley:
We can make up our own minds.

Mr McNarry:
It is pathetic, absolutely pathetic.

The Chairperson:
We have taken a vote on one aspect of this matter. As I understand it, Nelson’s proposal is that the Committee should write to the three governing bodies to tell them that it is unhappy about the leak. That may be one way of dealing with the issue.

Mr D Bradley:
We should say that we are unhappy that the issue was in the public domain before we received the letter.

Mr McCartney:
Just on the latter part of Nelson’s proposal, Howard Wells is entitled —

Mr McNarry:
So, we do not give a toot about the content of the letter, Dominic? You are only unhappy about the letter being in the public domain?

Mr McCartney:
It would be fair for us to point out the fact that the matter was placed in the public domain before the Committee received the letter. However, is it right to go on to say that Howard Wells should not have gone on the radio? If Howard Wells says that he did not leak the story —

Mr McNarry:
With all due respect, that does not change the situation. We have taken a vote, so we know members’ opinions. All we are doing is watering down the matter for the sake of watering it down. I would rather say nothing to him —

The Chairperson:
I agree with that; say nothing. I suggest to the Committee that, as previously agreed, it should now await the Department of Finance and Personnel’s decision on the business plan before revisiting the subject.

Mr McCausland:
Chairperson, I made a proposal, and I would rather that the Committee voted on it.

The Chairperson:
OK, please restate your proposal, and we will move on immediately afterwards.

Mr McCausland:
I propose that we write to the sporting bodies to express our disappointment that the letter was put into the public domain before the Committee received it. We can quote the relevant dates. In the letter to the IFA — but not in the letters to the others — we should express disappointment that an official of the organisation saw fit to comment to the media on that matter, which exacerbated the situation.

The Chairperson:
OK, the Committee is going to move on with this matter. We have heard the proposal; we will take a vote. Is there a seconder? Is a seconder needed?

Mr Shannon:
I second the proposal.

The Chairperson:
Those in favour of Nelson’s proposal, please raise their hands. Those opposed, raise their hands. As with the previous vote, the decision is locked at 4:4; therefore, the action will not be carried.

Can I seek agreement that the Committee awaits the Department of Finance and Personnel’s decision on the business plan before it revisits the subject?

Mr McNarry:
You cannot do that.

The Chairperson:
OK, fine. I propose that we await the Department of Finance and Personnel’s decision on the business plan. I will remove that addendum.

Mr McNarry:
What is the purpose of that?

The Chairperson:
Until then, we will not table it as a business item.

Mr McNarry:
We are awaiting it anyhow.

The Chairperson:
OK, well then, that is the position at which we have arrived.

Mr McNarry:
No disrespect, but that proposal is not necessary.

The Chairperson:
OK. I will move on.

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