HC Deb 16 March 1999 vol 327 cc1028-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Clelland.]

12.32 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

St. Patrick's day has begun and I am delighted to begin this national day of celebration by advocating the creation of a new national stadium in Northern Ireland to host great sporting occasions, pop concerts and other large events.

I start by outlining the role of sport in Northern Ireland society. During the past 30 years, sport has provided, throughout the troubles, moments of relief and joy for all, such as in the triumphs of Mary Peters in the Olympics or Barry McGuigan in the boxing ring. Northern Ireland still apparently claims to hold the home nations football championship, because it won the last championship to be held before England stopped playing. England had previously claimed that it would no longer play in the championships because it always won.

At the best of times, playing and watching sport have provided a common currency between the different communities—at times, perhaps the only common currency. The power of sport to transcend boundaries was demonstrated to the world recently in the rugby European cup triumph of Ulster against French opposition at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. The capacity crowd attracted the widest possible range of Unionist and nationalist politicians. More important perhaps, 60,000 ordinary people from Northern Ireland wanted tickets when only 28,000 tickets were available. As the Deputy First Minister commented, The Ulster players have done the impossible. They have created the situation where the entire island of Ireland, North and South, is behind them. People want to be part of it, people want to be there and what they do not want in any shape or form are these labels of religion or anything else being put on the game. Sport has also managed to help the economy going through difficult years, employing 12,500 people. According to opinion poll evidence, 80 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland believe that sport can help to build positive links between people of different communities.

At a grassroots level, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland has pioneered programmes such as Youth Sport, which has been widely copied elsewhere. Youth Sport seeks to integrate the school, the club and the community, keeping school sports facilities open until late at night. It aims to get more people to play the sport of their choice, regardless whether that is the traditional choice of their school or community. The Sports Council recently launched a public awareness campaign under the slogan "Participate, celebrate and tolerate".

It is worth noting that Northern Irish sport at a local level has benefited from the fact that, unlike England, Scotland or Wales, sport is a statutory responsibility of local councils, and has been since Stormont days.

Sport led the way on creating all-Ireland bodies long before the Good Friday agreement. There are 35 sports organised on an all-Ireland basis, of which perhaps rugby is the most notable. In a move underscoring the case for all-Ireland sports bodies, the Northern Ireland Athletics Federation recently ruled that its athletes would compete for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth games, and, if they chose, for the Irish Republic in the Olympics.

The Irish and Northern Ireland Sports Councils co-operate closely. Recently at the Omagh leisure centre a Sport for All programme which covers the border counties of Ireland between the north and the south was introduced.

At the worst of times, sport has emphasised the most bitter sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. Nelson Mandela observed that normal sport is impossible in an abnormal society. Even today, members of the security forces are not allowed to participate in Gaelic sports. A change in rules is as long overdue in that case as it was in regard to the admission of women to the pavilion at Lord's cricket ground.

The beautiful game, the world game of soccer has faced many problems in Northern Ireland, perhaps because, uniquely, it has been loved in equal measure by both communities. Soccer has perhaps never fully recovered from the bitterness left by the sectarian violence that occurred after the Boxing day derby match in 1948 between Linfield and Belfast Celtic in front of 33,000 spectators at Windsor Park. A post-match riot led to a horrific mob attack on 20-year-old Belfast Celtic centre forward Jimmy Jones, who had accidentally earlier fouled an opposing player. Jones survived, but the club folded in the aftermath of the incident.

Jimmy Jones was saved by a goalkeeper from Ballymena, Sean McCann, who single-handedly fought off scores of attackers. Jones recently told The Daily Telegraph: The irony of it all is that I am a Protestant, the people who were trying to kill me were Protestant and Sean is a Roman Catholic. Almost exactly 50 years later, there are renewed signs of hope in soccer. Glentoran and Linfield played a match around Christmas time 1998 watched by a crowd of 13,000, compared with about 4,000 in recent years at the same fixture. That is the sort of difference that the peace process can make to life for ordinary people, who can simply feel more confident about doing the normal things in life, such as going to watch a soccer match over Christmas.

In 11 days—or probably 10 days now—Northern Ireland play Germany in a European championship qualifying match at Windsor Park. The capacity, I understand, is only about 13,000. The chairman of the Sports Council, Mr. Allen, recently commented: If we had a stadium in a neutral venue and Northern Ireland were playing Germany, then the minimum I expect would be around about 30,000. If we had a stadium in a neutral venue, it would encourage people to go into a peaceful and enjoyable atmosphere to support a team whether they win or lose, and that would be very significant in peace and reconciliation terms. That is one argument for creating a new national stadium. It would symbolise a new beginning for Northern Ireland by creating a venue at which everyone would feel comfortable.

Northern Ireland lacks top-quality international facilities to complement its network of leisure centres at grassroots level. The rugby ground Ravenhill seats only 2,500 people, with space for another 5,000 or 6,000 people standing. The state of the soccer grounds, which were not covered by the legislation following the Taylor report, is a disgrace, which will be highlighted by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) in an Adjournment debate tomorrow.

Northern Ireland is in danger of being left out. London will soon boast the revamped Wembley and Twickenham; Cardiff Arms Park will host the rugby union cup final; Scotland has Hampden, Ibrox, Murrayfield and Meadowbank; Manchester will soon have an array of indoor and outdoor facilities to host the Commonwealth games; and in Dublin the new Croke Park will soon sport an estimated capacity of 81,000, ready to host the all-Ireland senior football and hurling finals of 2001.

With regard to the national lottery and the pools, more money is spent per head of the population in Northern Ireland than anywhere else; yet the Football Trust spends almost nothing in Northern Ireland. Money from the national lottery for sport is distributed on a population basis. In Northern Ireland, that figure is 2.8 per cent. of the national total. That will never provide enough capital to help fund a large one-off expenditure, such as a national stadium, which would cost at least £50 million.

The vision of a national stadium is the subject of discussion between Whitehall, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, the Sports Council, and some of the potential users. A high political priority needs to be given to assembling a financial package, perhaps including money from the lottery, the Government, the European Union and the private sector. If ever there was a special case, it is Northern Ireland.

Football, rugby and athletics are perhaps the most obvious potential users of a national stadium. The possibility of including Gaelic sports must be further examined. The dimensions of the pitch would need to be enhanced and the cost would inevitably increase. But the prize of regularly hosting an all-Ireland Gaelic football final or a hurling semi-final would be well worth aiming for if the sporting politics could be overcome.

The potential for other events is boundless. Last year, 40,000 young people turned up for an outdoor concert in the Botanic gardens. The right event can generate tourists from far and wide. On the same weekend as the Germany versus Northern Ireland football match, the world cross-country championships will bring athletes and enthusiasts from many countries to Belfast. Cheap, frequent and quick transportation is opening up the island of Ireland, and already the two-hour catchment area includes parts of England and Scotland and most of the population of Ireland.

There are various possible sites for the new stadium. One is in Belfast, adjacent to the Waterfront hall and the new arena, within a few hundred yards of the railway station, with a boat stopping outside and City airport minutes away. I understand that there are other possible venues as well.

In opinion polls, 94 per cent. of people rarely agree on anything, but that is the level of support in the telephone poll on a national stadium conducted by the Belfast Telegraph earlier this year. That poll generated far more calls than any other that the newspaper has previously undertaken.

I referred earlier to Jimmy Jones, the Belfast Celtic striker. Now a grandfather of four, he concluded his recent interview in The Daily Telegraph by referring to the site of the old club's stadium. He said: It's nice when people remember me, but I can never stand on this spot and not see Celtic Park in my mind's eye. It's not a shopping mall to me, it's still paradise, as everyone called it. Looking back, I couldn't have told you whether most of my team-mates were Catholic or Protestant. We didn't give a damn about that sort of thing. Jimmy Jones's grandchildren, and all the children of Northern Ireland, need a new stadium, a stadium where they will all feel safe, a stadium that will inspire them and make them proud to come from where they come from, a stadium that will give them a stage in their own backyard where they can witness the excellence of the world's greatest entertainers and sportsmen and sportswomen, a stadium that will give them memories to last a lifetime.

12.44 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John McFall)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this Adjournment debate, and I wish him and every other hon. Member present a happy St. Patrick's day. I did not expect to be replying to this debate on St. Patrick's day, but it is appropriate that I am. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) will be following this up with another Adjournment debate within 12 hours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby mentioned the sporting heroes, Mary Peters and Barry McGuigan. In my short time at the Northern Ireland Office, I have been privileged to meet both of them. He also mentioned the religious divide and the sectarianism. I remember when Bertie Peacock played left half at Glasgow Celtic, and I think that he still has an executive role at Coleraine. He was a tremendous player, gracing the field at Parkhead in Glasgow. He was a Protestant, playing for a club which was recognised as Catholic, but he crossed that divide and he was a fine servant. Before him, I remember Charlie Tully, who came from Belfast and was a real character, and we all know the inestimable George Best who danced his way around the world and gave people many hours of enjoyment. Northern Ireland sportsmen have played their part in the past and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby is right to ensure that a national stadium for Northern Ireland is very much on the agenda.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Although others have been mentioned, does the Minister agree that we should not overlook the fact that Dave "Boy" McAuley, who comes from East Antrim, was five times world boxing champion?

Mr. McFall

The hon. Gentleman has graced the debate with his presence and his contribution and I thank him very much for that. He will obviously be interested in this debate in respect of Larne football club and Ballyclare, which are in his constituency.

The Government are fully aware of the level of interest in the provision of a national sports stadium in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, that has been an aspiration of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland for some time, in order to bring the Province into line with England, Scotland and Wales, and I have had a number of discussions with its chairman, Don Allen, on that very matter. My hon. Friend is right to say that the people of Northern Ireland are aware of the major developments for upgrading the national stadiums in the other home countries and of proposals for a national stadium in the Republic of Ireland.

The success of the Ulster rugby team in winning the European Cup has also renewed interest in the matter. I was privileged to be at the match at Ravenhill, and I think that 20,000 spectators were present. As my hon. Friend said, the official attendance was supposed to be 2,000, but special seats were installed for that fantastic day. I followed that visit up with a trip to Lansdowne Road in Dublin. The cross-community support for the Ulster rugby team was fantastic.

I made my way into the ground with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, from Dublin airport. There was not a pub that we passed that did not have people standing outside in the street, waving and enjoying themselves. The only sad thing for me was that, after the victory, we had to leave straight away and could not share in the celebration. It was a day of festivity and of celebration for everyone and that pride in the Ulster rugby team lives on in Northern Ireland.

Many of those who are interested in sport felt that it would have been appropriate for Ulster to have been able to play the semi-final fixture in a national stadium, which would have offered enhanced spectator opportunities. The facilities at Ravenhill show us how far we have to go in that regard and the demand is present for the Northern Ireland community to have facilities at least on a par with those in the other regions of these islands.

Northern Ireland should have the best possible facilities. A national stadium would provide a whole range of benefits and new opportunities, as well as helping to secure a more positive image of the Province. That goes hand in hand with the Belfast agreement and with the political developments which we hope will take place shortly.

Since I have assumed responsibilities for sport under my responsibility for the Department of Education, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland has taken every opportunity to point out that Northern Ireland has few facilities which could be classified as suitable for national competition or national training. There are no Wembleys or Hampden Parks and no Celtic Parks, Ibrox Parks or Old Traffords in Northern Ireland. Although I recognise that, I have also to recognise that a national stadium would require significant investment of funds and that assurances about the long-term need for and sustainability of such a development would therefore be essential.

I do not want to give the impression that Northern Ireland is devoid of facilities and that progress is not being made. I want to affirm that the Government attach great importance to the improvement of the quality of life for all the people of Northern Ireland. That is clearly shown by the fact that the Government have committed significant investment in the Millennium Odyssey project, which includes an indoor, multi-functional sports arena with seating for 10,000.

I am also pleased that Northern Ireland is being locked into the development of sport at a United Kingdom level, through the development of a network centre as part of the UK Sports Institute. I attended a sports cabinet meeting last week with a number of my ministerial colleagues, at which the issues of sporting facilities in Northern Ireland and the establishment of a national stadium arose.

The Sports Council is managing the setting up of a network centre, and I hope to be able to announce progress in the near future. Following the establishment of the UK Sports Institute, sports people in Northern Ireland will have the same opportunity to reach the optimum level of performance as their counterparts throughout the United Kingdom. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that significant progress is being made.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) spoke of the great interest in having a national stadium in Northern Ireland—something that I have wanted for many years. Incidentally, in our last game with Germany—in Nuremberg—we drew with them, and we shall beat them on Saturday week. What about private investment? It is all very well to talk about the need for a stadium, and the interest in having a stadium—everyone agrees on that—but is any encouragement being given to private investment, in an effort to make that a reality?

Mr. McFall

If the right hon. Member will bear with me, I shall explain about the working party that has been set up by the Department of Education.

Of course a new national sports stadium, on top of the other developments, would be a huge bonus for Northern Ireland but it would be foolish to embark on such a significant and costly project without proper research into need, resource implications and long-term sustainability. We need to be convinced about all those issues. If we fail to address them, there is a danger that we could end up with an arrangement that would be out of step with real need, and would result in a serious misuse of resources.

I have been looking carefully at what can be done. I am pleased to announce a process that will allow the key issues to be addressed and, hopefully, map out a plan for progress. I have arranged for a working group to be set up, led by the Sports Council, to examine thoroughly all aspects of the establishment of a national stadium, including the private and public finance aspects.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on raising this issue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) referred to private finance. The Minister may know of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society's proposal to move from its present site at Balmoral to a new green-field site at Blaris, where it hopes to create facilities for show grounds and so on. It has been suggested that an integrated facility could be developed at Blaris that might include a national stadium, and that private finance might be available for such a facility. I hope that proposal will be included in the working party's deliberations.

Mr. McFall

It is important for the working party to consider such matters, and I find the integrated element referred to by the hon. Gentleman very attractive. I should be happy if the working party engaged in such discussions.

The working party will explore the need for, and feasibility of, a national stadium. Specifically, its job will be to consult relevant sporting interests to determine their willingness to participate in the promotion and operation of such a stadium. That is relevant to the hon. Gentleman's question. It will also hope to identify potential promoters, owners and operators. It will be expected to examine the capital and recurrent funding implications, and associated locational issues; to examine the potential relationships and links with relevant public and private-sector organisations; to construct an outline business case; and to determine what further steps should be taken.

The working group has an important contribution to make in taking forward the concept of a national stadium. It is an important issue in the development of sport in Northern Ireland. Such a stadium has been missing. It is certainly an issue that I take seriously.

I do not want to break into the Adjournment debate that will take place later in the day, but I have had a meeting with the Football Trust on its contribution; I think that it took place on 21 January. It was a positive meeting. The trust told me that it was keen to become involved in a programme for Northern Ireland, so such a group could give us advice on the way forward and be one of the organisations that help to pan out the future.

The working party's report and its preliminary findings should be available by the end of June. I do not anticipate being in post to receive that report, but I am sure that my successor will do so. That will be an important element of the Assembly's agenda. If the Assembly tackled the matter at an early stage and ensured that we had a national stadium for Northern Ireland, it would instil pride in the entire community. That was in evidence after the Ulster rugby team's European win. If the stadium matched the quality of the participants, there would be a good future for Northern Ireland.

I have been delighted to take forward the measures to date and am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby has secured the debate, so that the issue can be discussed. It is an aspect of the political agenda in Northern Ireland. I hope that it will remain on the agenda until we see a spanking new stadium that is fit for a new Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to One o'clock.