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Lockdown ban on NI sports fans unlikely despite Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin's appeal

Limited number of spectators will still be allowed at elite events

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Social distancing: Fans attend the Linfield v Carrick Rangers match at Windsor Park on Saturday

Social distancing: Fans attend the Linfield v Carrick Rangers match at Windsor Park on Saturday

Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press I

Social distancing: Fans attend the Linfield v Carrick Rangers match at Windsor Park on Saturday

Fans will still be able to attend top level sport in Northern Ireland, it is understood.

The situation around supporters at games remains unchanged after Sinn Fein Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin held a Zoom call with organising bodies yesterday.

She has called for fixtures to be held behind closed doors.

Ms Ni Chuilin said over the weekend that she planned to speak to sports bosses as she refused to budge on her view that fans should not be in attendance during the four-week lockdown.

Just 90 minutes before Coleraine kicked off the delayed Irish League Premiership season at home to Ballymena United on Friday night, Ms Ni Chuilin sent out a directive instructing that all elite sport must be played behind closed doors.

However, the decision was taken to allow the limited number of home fans with tickets into The Showgrounds after the PSNI and footballing authorities liaised with each other, as it was deemed safer than letting them congregate at the main gate.

As the game was under way First Minister Arlene Foster tweeted that the new regulations did not ban spectators. She said it was "preposterous" for clubs to have been told otherwise.

Other Premiership clubs were then left scrambling to find out if they could allow fans to attend Saturday's matches.

Ms Ni Chuilin has since accepted that the legislation does not prevent fans from attending games, but urged sporting bodies to follow her advice.

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Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

The Department for Communities explained that the minister yesterday met with more than 70 representatives from various local sports to thank them for their work during the pandemic.

"Ongoing issues" were discussed during the Zoom call, as well as the latest health and scientific advice.

Ms Ni Chuilin also assured those present that she was working to secure a hardship package for the sector.

Both the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) declined to comment on the meeting.

However, the IFA directed the Belfast Telegraph to the statement it released over the weekend noting that spectators will be admitted to elite sporting events, which are allowed under the regulations. This includes Danske Bank Premiership fixtures.

In that statement IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson said: "The football industry in Northern Ireland, from governing body and NIFL level to right through the pyramid, has worked tirelessly to ensure protocols are in place for the safe return of supporters at games.

"We have proven, just last week when we had 600 impeccably behaved supporters at our Uefa Nations League game against Austria, and at the Irish Cup final in July, that games with fans can take place safely at the National Stadium at Windsor Park and we know our clubs in the NIFL have similarly been engaging with fans to do likewise."

He added that the IFA was committed to playing its part in reducing the threat of Covid-19 and that it will continue to press the Executive on what financial measures will be made to support football here.

Ulster Rugby and Ulster GAA were also approached for comment yesterday.


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