Northern Ireland faces 'embarrassment' as civil services refuses to sign off on Commonwealth Youth Games as it does not represent 'value for money'
A civil Service decision not to provide funding to host the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games in Belfast has been labelled a "slap in the face" for Northern Ireland's sporting community, and the event could now be awarded to another city if the money isn't found by Friday.
While Belfast won the bid to host the games in February 2016, the £3m funding requested by organisers had not been signed off by the time the Executive collapsed in January 2017.
The situation has now reached crisis point, with Northern Ireland's Commonwealth Games Council warning that unless funding is confirmed with the Commonwealth Games Federation on Friday, the prestigious sporting competition may be taken elsewhere.
Yesterday, in an email to UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt which was copied to the leaders of the five main political parties, the Head of the NI Civil Service, David Sterling, said that "funding for the event does not represent value for money".
He added that, in such circumstances, financial support could only be given through the direction of a Minister - something that remains impossible given the Stormont stalemate.
Mr Sterling stated: "The business case for hosting the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games has been through a lengthy approval process on two separate occasions and on each occasion it has been concluded that funding for the event does not represent value for money.
"The outcome has been communicated to the NI Commonwealth Games Council.
"While this may be a disappointing outcome, without a clear demonstration of value for money there is no basis for an Accounting Officer to offer financial support for the Games unless they were formally directed to do so by their Minister.
"This means that the Department for the Economy will not be in a position to fund the proposal for the Games to be held in Northern Ireland."
Chairman of the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council Robert McVeigh described the decision as "devastating," and called for Mr Sterling and the five main party leaders to save the Games.
"The board meeting of the Commonwealth Games Federation is on Friday, and if we don't have funding in place by then, that's it," he said.
"It will be very embarrassing if the Games are taken away from Northern Ireland two years after we won the bid - it wouldn't make us look very good on the international stage.
"In November 2014 we were asked by the Assembly to bid for the Games, with the unanimous support of all the parties.
"We have now been told that it doesn't represent value for money, but they have refused our requests to see the business case.
"There is no transparency in the process. The Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council is not pulling out of the games - they are being taken away from us."
Mr McVeigh says the event would provide "fantastic opportunities" and believes the non-monetary benefits are being overlooked.
"Normally you would only have teams of 20 people, but the host country is allowed a team of about 100 young people," he explained.
"A lot of these young people go on to become the stars. Carl Frampton and Michael Conlan competed in the past.
"There are benefits to the sports development of athletes, to health, education, opportunities for volunteers and sports officials. It would really raise Northern Ireland's profile on the world stage.
"If the business case was purely judged on tourism potential and bed nights then we believe they used the wrong criteria.
"We have invested very heavily into this - easily tens of thousands on attending events, promotional work and engagement with governing bodies to encourage children to engage."
Mr McVeigh believes the Games are also "victims of our political process" and says he has invited the leaders of the five main political parties to meet with his organisation today.
"We have been living in hope that the political situation would have changed and we would have a Minister to make a decision," he continued.
"We are calling on David Sterling and the leaders of the five main political parties to come together and work out a way to make the Games happen."
Business and Operations manager of the NI Commonwealth Games Council Conal Heatley expressed "anger" at the situation.
"It has turned from disappointment to anger over the lack of accountability and transparency," he stated. "It's a slap in the face for the sporting community in Northern Ireland.
"You listen to them talking about investing in young people, but it doesn't look like it."
Mr Nesbitt, chair of the All Party Group on Sport and Recreation, called the funding decision "very disappointing".
He stated: "When the bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup was at risk through the lack of an Executive, the then head of the Civil Service, Malcolm McKibbin, suggested a workaround whereby the five main party leaders signed letters saying they endorsed the proposal and underwrote the finances.
"That's all the Commonwealth Youth Games organisers were asking of Malcolm McKibbin's successor. It is deeply disappointing that the response has been so negative.
"The Games appear to be lost, with consequent international embarrassment.
"Hosting the Games would have been entirely consistent with successive Programme for Government commitments of attracting major international events."
UUP tourism spokesperson Alan Chambers MLA added: "This decision is a very clear example of how operating without an Executive is failing the greater good.
"The event may not have guaranteed value for money as far as the civil service was concerned, but it would have guaranteed international exposure and positive press at home and abroad, and what price do you put on that?
"All five main parties have already agreed to support this event and there is no question that had a local Minister been in place, he or she would have recognised the added value that an investment in the Commonwealth Youth Games would have created."
A spokesperson for The Executive Office said: "The Business case for hosting the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games has been through a lengthy approval process on two separate occasions and on each occasion it has been concluded that funding for the event does not represent value for money. The outcome has been communicated to the NI Commonwealth Games Council."