Thousands of special athletes across Northern Ireland are in danger of losing a sporting lifeline as the Stormont spending axe begins to swing.
A £2.6m funding bid by Special Olympics Ulster could fall at the first financial hurdle, due to the deepening public expenditure squeeze.
Angry Assembly Members have been told the four-year project cannot be financed by the Department of Sport alone.
Instead, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Nelson McCausland is calling for help from his counterparts in health, education and the First Ministers’ Office.
The organisation provides year-round sports training and athletic competition for more than 13,000 children and adults who have a disability in the province.
Across the traditional nine counties of Ulster, also including Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, the total involved soars to 19,000.
Apart from major events, the Belfast-based group puts on activities on an almost nightly basis, |allowing their participants “opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendships”.
But now their hopes are threatened, unless a cross-departmental rescue package can be agreed.
Staff of Special Olympics Ulster, which is largely operated by volunteers, are this week lobbying MLAs to argue their case.
SOU regional director Shaun Cassidy said he remained hopeful of securing core funding from |the Stormont Executive to help |deliver the Special Olympics programme in Northern Ireland over the next four years.
“We have worked constructively over many months with Sport NI on behalf of a number of government departments, in an effort to secure core funding. That funding will be essential if we are to sustain our programme.
“Our case currently sits with the DCAL minister, who is in communication with his ministerial colleagues on the way forward. We look forward to re-engaging withthem, confident that they will see the value in supporting Special Olympics and our athletes.”
Alliance party chief whip Kieran McCarthy said: “It is absolutely crazy when you consider that £2m is being put aside for Ulster-Scots. It just doesn’t make sense.
“Allowing Special Olympics Ulster to go by the board is nothing short of scandalous.”