I carry a deep belief in the importance of sport and a strong desire to place it on a sound footing for the future.
That is why when I became Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure in July 2009 one of my immediate priorities was to ensure that the excellent work undertaken by my predecessors, Edwin Poots MLA and Gregory Campbell MP MLA, to develop a new strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation for Northern Ireland was finally brought to fruition. The strategy, ‘Sport Matters', was developed in partnership with Sport Northern Ireland and is a significant milestone in achieving that aspiration.
The strategy sets out the case for ongoing and increased investment in sport and physical recreation to deliver a range of sporting outcomes and support the wider social and economic agenda in areas such as education, health and the development of communities over the period 2009-2019. It explains how sport in Northern Ireland will be developed over the next 10 years and affirms Government commitment to put in place effective structures and mechanisms in support of a vision of a “culture of lifelong enjoyment and success in sport”.
There will be significant challenges in ensuring effective delivery. I believe it is a challenge worth taking as the benefits will be far reaching.
As well as being of value in its own right, there is widespread evidence that increasing participation in sport and physical recreation can contribute to improved health, improved academic performance, reduced crime and socio-economic regeneration of communities. Sport can also assist in bridging community divisions.
I believe there is a clear public passion for, and interest in, sport across Northern Ireland. We are a small country but we have a big sense of pride in the achievements of our sportsmen and sportswomen. ‘Sport Matters' will enhance the development opportunities for those who wish to compete at world class events.
For those individuals who do not choose to participate in sport a greater encouragement is required. The available evidence suggests that participation rates in Northern Ireland are amongst the lowest in the UK and falling.
In 1996/97 the proportion of adults who participated in sport over the previous 12 months was 60 per cent compared to 49 per cent in 2007/08. A key priority of this strategy is to halt this decline. The themes and targets set out within the strategy seek an overall increase in participation levels across all ages and all communities. By 2019 Northern Ireland will have developed a range of new, improved and shared sports facilities to a standard comparable with other similar regions of the UK.
The implementation of ‘Sport Matters' will require a joined-up approach across Government departments, Sport Northern Ireland, governing bodies and other stakeholders. ‘Sport Matters' recognises that there is valuable existing investment in sport and physical recreation but this will need to be sustained in parallel with the implementation of the strategy.
While ‘Sport Matters' provides an estimate of the cost of implementation, levels of public funding will be subject to the normal budgetary and business planning processes, including other competing priorities, and the ability of all stakeholders to contribute.
Work has already begun and with the support of all those interested in sport and physical recreation we will meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunity before us.
I firmly believe that the successful delivery of this ambitious strategy will leave a lasting and sustainable legacy for future generations.