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Confusion reigns as Northern Ireland ministers disagree on whether spectators are banned at sport events

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Friday night's Danske Bank Premiership Coleraine v Ballymena

Friday night's Danske Bank Premiership Coleraine v Ballymena

Friday night's Danske Bank Premiership Coleraine v Ballymena

Confusion reigned on Friday night as conflicting messages emerged from Stormont over the presence of spectators at elite sporting events in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks.

A letter was sent out from the Department for Communities on Friday informing clubs that, although elite sport can continue despite the new restrictions introduced on Thursday, spectators would not be given permission to attend events to try and curb the continued spread of Covid-19.

Communities minister Caral Ni Chuilin said in the letter: "In addition to not permitting a range of sporting activities, it is also necessary to stop spectators from attending sporting events and align the sector with the Health Regulations restricting the number of people permitted to gather for a common purpose, that is 15.

"This decision is in line with the views of the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific advisor who have indicated that it would be unwise for large gatherings to take place at this time. While I appreciate all the efforts that Governing bodies and clubs have made to provide safe environments at recent fixtures i do not think that given the challenges we all face that it is appropriate for those arrangements to continue," she said.

That decision to ban spectators came just hours before Coleraine were due to face Ballymena United in the opening game of the Danske Bank Premiership season, with the Bannsiders electing to allow ticket holders into the Showgrounds anyway, believing it was in the best interests of their safety given how many had arrived and were waiting outside the ground.

The lateness of the ruling was greeted with dismay by football chiefs and supporters.

However, that letter was then seemingly overruled by First Minister Arlene Foster when she took to Twitter last night in an attempt to try to clear up the issue.

Ms Foster wrote: “The regulations do not ban spectators in the grounds of elite sports. The existing position is maintained permitting a limited number to attend. Preposterous for clubs to be told anything to the contrary.”

In a Tweet, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said Ms Ni Chuilin had been "kicked off the pitch" by the First Minister.

"The Sinn Fein sports minister acted above her station when she instructed clubs to refuse entry to fans," he said. "Her letter was a deliberate attack on the Irish League and a solo run which is contrary to the Executive's regulations.

"Sinn Fein might think they run the Executive but they don't," he added. "We hope all fans enjoy their experience tomorrow, regardless of what team they support."

Alliance MP Stephen Farry accused Ms Ni Chuilin of going on "a solo run" on the issue. "What was agreed on Tuesday by Executive was a package, and was concluded by consensus. This is another solo run," he said.

"There is an urgent need for Executive Office & Dept of Health to finalise and publish the regulations, rather than adding to confusion."

Representations will now be made in the coming days by the Irish FA and Irish League to have the Department for Communities’ decision reversed.

The department’s decision was also set to have a knock-on effect for Ulster Rugby and a further impact for the IFA.

The IFA were hoping to have fans in attendance at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland’s Euro play-off final against Slovakia on November 12, while Ulster were intending on allowing spectators into two games at Kingspan Stadium over the next four weeks, with both organisations now closely monitoring the situation.

Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry claimed the club were left in an “impossible position” on Friday night after the confusion over Covid-19 regulations.

With just 90 minutes until kick-off in their game against Ballymena United on Friday, the club were told they were not allowed fans inside the Showgrounds by the Department of Communities.

But with fans gathering both outside and inside the ground ahead of the game, the club, with assistance from the PSNI, the IFA and NIFL, determined that turning fans away would endanger public safety.

“I think it is treating people in general with contempt,” blasted a frustrated McKendry.

“This decision, if it had to be made, it should have happened at the start of the week. It would have saved us all an awful lot of time and money.

“It’s not a difficult decision, you either do it or you don’t. You’re going to disappoint people, but if you do it on Monday morning they would have been over it by now.

“We had children and adults turning up here excited about watching a game of football, then all of a sudden you have government leaders saying you can’t bring people in.

“I think we’re showing leadership as a football club. I cannot put fans out of this ground. We have been put in an impossible position through lack of leadership.”

The confusion over whether fans can attend games has left five Danske Bank Premiership clubs in flux ahead of the remaining slate of games this afternoon.

Five more games will kick-off on Saturday with clubs understandably wary as to whether or not they will be allowed to welcome ticket holders in for their games or if they will have to turn them away.

Linfield chairman Roy McGivern said: “I am astounded by the decision to stop fans attending Irish League games. Why can’t we have 500 fans in an 18,000 capacity stadium with all the relevant safety measures in place? It is a complete embarrassment, whoever is responsible.”

Belfast Telegraph