Belfast Telegraph

I’d have no problem cheering Northern Ireland, says Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

By Steven Beacom

Sinn Fein don’t normally do the whole royalty thing, but the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister met the King yesterday.



King David Healy, that is.

Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer was back home in his role as our 2012 Olympic Games ambassador.

Caral Ni Chuilin admits she wouldn’t be a natural Northern Ireland fan, but in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph she revealed she was cheering long and loud when Healy scored his most celebrated goal.

You know the one — September 7, 2005 when he smacked the ball into the England net at Windsor Park to give Northern Ireland a famous 1-0 triumph.

“I was behind that kick from David Healy that beat England as much as anyone that night. I was delighted to see it go in,” said Ni Chuilin, who took up her new post last month.

The Open University graduate wasn’t at Windsor six years ago.

In fact she has never been to the home of Linfield and Northern Ireland.

That, though, might change on August 10 when Northern Ireland play a vital European Championship qualifier against Faroe Islands at the south Belfast venue.

To date she has not had an invite by the Irish FA but says she would welcome one.

It’s quite a statement from the woman, born and raised a republican in the New Lodge area of Belfast and who as a member of the IRA was sentenced to eight years in prison in 1989 on explosive charges and released after serving half that term.

Some would say if she turned up it would be a bigger shock than if the Faroes won the game, but believe it, she is keen to attend in her position as Minister for Sport.

And this despite openly admitting that she believes there should be an All-Ireland football team.

“To be honest I would like to see an All-Ireland team, like the same way the cricket and rugby teams are organised,” she states.

“That way you have more chance of pulling more talent in and having a better team.

“I’m realistic about an All-Ireland team though and know that it is not possible.”

What is possible, is what would be a historic visit to Windsor.

She reveals: “I’m actively considering going to Windsor Park. I wouldn’t say no. I don’t think you should exclude yourself from anything.

“I’ll be up front about it though — my difficulty would be with the anthems.”

So, does that mean she feels God Save The Queen should not be Northern Ireland’s anthem?

Perhaps surprisingly she states: “I don’t want the anthem changed. I’m from a culture and other people have their culture. I’m not about imposing mine on them no more the other way around.”

One senses if she did turn up at the stadium, it would be after the anthem was played.

“I’d like to go and walk in when there is no embarrassment to myself or anyone else, because I realise I’m in a leadership position,” adds the mother of three.

“I don’t want to insult or offend anyone but at the same time I’m extremely aware you can’t be everything to everyone. There are ways of doing this and handling it that won’t be insensitive to me or anybody else or the community I represent.”

On the Northern Ireland fans, she says: “I know there’s a small minority who give the international side a bad name. But the majority of them are brilliant, who are doing good work, voluntarily, creating a momentum and building up support for the team.”

So, if in attendance would you support the Northern Ireland team Sports Minister?

Answer: “It all depends who they are playing.”

Well, they are playing Faroe Islands in August.

Smiling, she answered: “I’d support the local team.

“If they were playing Barcelona or Italy I might have been torn!”

What about when Northern Ireland played the Republic of Ireland recently. Who were you supporting?

Answer: “Nobody.”

Seriously?

Answer: “I didn’t watch it. I’m not a soccer fan as such.”

Asked if she would like to see Northern Ireland qualify for the 2012 European Championships finals, the MLA for north Belfast gave that idea the thumbs up.

“I would like to see that happen. That sort of thing lifts everyone’s spirits.”

The chances of qualification would be enhanced if all the players who came through the underage ranks with Northern Ireland continued to play for the senior team instead of defecting to the Republic, as has been the case recently with several players deciding to go south, though on the flip side Leeds defender Alex Bruce, son of Sunderland boss Steve, is now thinking about going the other way.

“Everyone seems to be an expert on the player eligibility issue and have given me their opinion about it, but to me it is down to the governing bodies,” says the Minister, who believes it unlikely that the IFA will ask for her support on the matter.

“I know the eligibility row has been through the Court of Arbitration and now there is a player going the other way playing for the South and wanting to come North. In terms of what can be done, has been done. Regrettably we are where we are with it.”

Ni Chuilin says she has already established a good working relationship with the IFA and hopes to do the same with the GAA and Ulster Rugby, in particular regarding stadium improvements at Windsor, Casement Park and Ravenhill.

“The work has started already. All three bodies know this has to be completed by 2015. I’ve made that very clear. We’re hoping to see design plans and business cases coming in. There’s a management group who met with the three bodies last week. We’ll meet on a regular basis and scrutinise developments as they progress and go over issues and difficulties and deal with them. I’m insistent about that.”

Another meeting on the agenda is with the Tourist Board about the lack of funding for the Milk Cup and Foyle Cup youth tournaments. It’s clear Ni Chuilin is determined to be on the ball in her new role.

A question of sport

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin goes under Steven Beacom’s spotlight to |answer his 10 sporting questions. See if you can better her score.

1 Who is Northern Ireland's record goalscorer?

Answer: David Healy. Correct

2 Who played in the All-Ireland final |last year?

Answer: Pause...Kerry — incorrect, it was Down v Cork

3 Who is Ulster rugby's manager?

Answer: Don’t know — incorrect, it is Brian McLaughlin.

4 Where did Graeme McDowell win the US Open last year?

Answer: No idea — incorrect, it was Pebble Beach

5 Which NI athlete won gold medals in the 100m and 200m Paralympic Games in 2008?

Answer: Michael McKillop — incorrect, it was his good friend, Jason Smyth

6 How many times has Tony McCoy won the Grand National?

Answer: Once — correct.

7 Where do Glenavon play?

Answer: Lurgan — correct, I’ll give you that, it’s Mourneview Park in Lurgan.

8 Which Derry boxer did Amir Khan beat in a world title fight earlier this year?

Answer: It’s the fella from Dungiven. It’s McCloskey — correct, Paul McCloskey.

9 Which NI star won a silver medal in the Beijing Olympics?

Answer: No idea — incorrect it was Wendy Houvenaghel

10 Who manages Armagh GAA team?

Answer: It’s the fella from Down - the former Down player... pause.... — incorrect it’s Paddy O’Rourke

MINISTER’S FINAL SCORE: 4/10

So Minister, you score four out of 10. Could do better, but at least you gave our sports quiz a go unlike your predecessor Nelson McCausland who declined the opportunity to show off his sporting knowledge.

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