'Unforgivable' for Sport NI to hand bank £1m in funding

Sports clubs have reacted with dismay after Sport NI gave back £1m of unspent funding to Stormont, having failed to use all of its budget over two years.

Sport NI underspent by £500,000 in each of the last two years and the cash went back to the Department for Communities.

Cathal Óg Mullan, the treasurer of Glenullin Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) club, called it "unforgiveable".

Aidan Murphy, chair of Armagh City Football Club, said up to 40 clubs could have benefitted from the money.

"I'm sure there was shock and horror within many clubs today whenever they heard that £1m earmarked for sport had been lost," Mr Murphy told the BBC's Evening Extra programme.

"There are so many areas in which it inevitably could have been spent."

Speaking on the same programme, Mr Mullan said the repeated underspends were "incredibly frustrating".

"To see that £1m disappear to fill a hole in the budget of the Department for Communities is just unforgivable for Sport NI," he added.

Both clubs recently benefitted from Sport NI's Building Better Sports Facilities programme which offered grants of up to £25,000 to improve sports grounds.

However, Mr Murphy pointed out that the unspent £1m could have been distributed to another 40 clubs in the form of £25,000 grants.

"All sports clubs are chasing various funding pools and, more often than not, are unsuccessful," he said.

"Even if the £1m was given out to small items like balls, bibs, items for boxing clubs - whatever it might be - it would be better putting out an application that would have a quick turnaround, rather than return money to either the Department for Communities or the Exchequer."

Sport NI is a publicly funded organisation which has a dual role - to promote public participation in sport/physical exercise and support elite athletes.

It is currently led by its interim Chief Executive Officer Richard Archibald, who told BBC Sport that handing the money back was "disappointing".

He explained that since the Covid-19 pandemic there had been "a shift in emphasis and focus" in some of its long-running sports programmes and within that process of change "there wasn't the full utilisation as we would have wanted".

Sport NI also failed to meet almost half of its business plan objectives, and is also working through arrears of outstanding National Lottery accounts.

A spokesman for the Department of Communities told BBC Sport: "As it is not possible to carry easements from one financial year into the next, the Sport NI £1m easement was used to address other departmental pressures at that time."

'Spade-ready' construction plan

Mr Mullan argued that the organisation should widen its funding criteria to prevent future underspends.

He said John Mitchel's GAC Glenullin was "very grateful" for the Sport NI grant it recently received and had used the money to install disabled toilets and renovate the club's existing toilets.

But he added that his club recently secured planning permission to build a new grass pitch, a pavilion and a community walking track - none of which was considered eligible for Sport NI funding.

"We're a rural club - exercise on the roads is not safe in our area," Mr Mullan said.

He explained the walking track was to be built around the pitch and made available to local residents "which would have allowed for safe exercise for old and young" as well as running events like 'Couch to 5K'.

The GAA treasurer said his club was "spade ready" to start construction and it asked Sport NI for advice on securing additional funding for the building project.

"Sport NI were just saying: 'No, there's nothing available that you can get this money for,'" Mr Mullan recalled.

"To hear that they turned £1m back, it is so frustrating. And the fact that it happened over two years. I mean, if you have £500,000 underspend after year one then you probably need to look at what you're doing with your money and see whether you need to widen the things that you're willing to fund.

"But to allow that to go into a second year and then give that £1m back?"

He suggested that if Sport NI was having difficulty spending its budget it should look into trying to fund "capital projects above £30,000 for a start".

Armagh City FC used its Building Better Sports Facilities grant to replace its central heating boiler and install LED (light-emitting diode) lights in its grounds.

But Mr Murphy said his club was "initially turned down" for the money in 2021 and was put on a waiting list before its application succeeded 15 months later.

He added that more women were interested in joining the club since the Women's Euro 2022 competition and there was constant demand for better facilities.

A spokesman for the Department of Communities told BBC Sport: "As it is not possible to carry easements from one financial year into the next, the Sport NI £1m easement was used to address other departmental pressures at that time."