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Going to Windsor Park is routine for me now, insists Caral Ni Chuilin

By Steven Beacom

Published 19/05/2015

Having a ball: Caral Ni Chuilin has enjoyed her time as Sports Minister
Having a ball: Caral Ni Chuilin has enjoyed her time as Sports Minister

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has revealed that attending football matches at Windsor Park has become the norm for her after her ground breaking visit to the stadium in 2011.

In an exclusive and wide ranging interview with the Belfast Telegraph to mark four years as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) in the Northern Ireland Executive, the Sinn Fein MLA spoke about her pride in having the role, bringing more big sporting events to the province, the Casement Park controversy and when she expects to leave the post.

Now the longest serving DCAL Minister the country has had, Ms Ni Chuilin made an immediate impact following her appointment with her first interview when she told this newspaper she intended to become the first Sinn Fein representative to go to Windsor Park for an international match to cheer on the Northern Ireland team.

True to her word, a few months later she attended a 4-0 victory over the Faroe Islands in August 2011.

At the time it was considered an historic step and she was welcomed back by the Irish FA. Today she says nobody bats an eyelid when she turns up at the stadium, declaring that is the way it should be.

"There was a lot of attention attached to my first game, but going to Windsor that first time was no big shakes to me," she recalled. "It was something I wanted to do.

"I have been over to Windsor Park lots of times since then and the fans don't even pay any heed when I go in and out of it now.

"I work very well and closely with the Irish FA, I think the manager Michael O'Neill has done a great job and hopefully the team will qualify for the European Championships."

While Ni Chuilin wouldn't say whether she would travel to France for the Euro 2016 finals should Northern Ireland make it, she didn't rule it out either.

By then, though, she will not be Sports Minister.

Asked how long she expects to continue in the role, the Belfast woman said: "Hopefully until my tenure comes to an end. Technically that would be up to the elections next May.

"I don't think I should stay on after that. Our party has a practice of changing the Ministers and I think it is a good thing. May 2016 I will move on."

Before then she says she has much to achieve, not least in seeing more people in Northern Ireland cross the sporting divide, as she did by going to Windsor.

"When I was growing up people tended to support different sports depending on their political or religious complexion and I believe that is starting to change," she says.

"We still have some way to go but we are getting there and need to keep moving forward in that regard."

Keen to also see more members of the public have access to sport and to participate in sport, Ni Chuilin made an assurance that when DCAL becomes the Department of Communities next year, as part of a restructuring process at Stormont, sport won't be pushed down the pecking order.

"Sport isn't in the departmental title at the moment and look what we have achieved so let's not be constrained by labels," stated the Sinn Fein woman.

"It's going to be called the Department of Communities and some people love it and some people don't but the functions are going to be the same in terms of DCAL transferring over and hopefully whoever comes after me will appreciate and love sports, culture and arts as much as I do.

"I'm very proud to have been in this role for four years now.

"Despite the many challenges that I have to deal with I still feel I have the best job in the Executive being responsible for sport, arts, libraries, museums and public records and all that. I think it is a huge privilege.

"I don't have a favourite area of responsibility. I'm lucky enough to enjoy many of the aspects I'm responsible for, especially music. I also love sport. My favourite three sports are boxing, hurling and handball.

"I played sport and my kids and my family are involved in sport and I see what sport does for communities.

"It gives us all a great sense of pride when we see our athletes coming through and doing well.

"I want to see that continue and for our sports stars to continue to put us in the headlines for all the right reasons."

Belfast Telegraph

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