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Royal County Down Golf Club given £1.5m Covid funds ‘to protect global status’

MLAs examine how money was allocated from controversial £23m grants scheme

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Royal County Down had its losses covered as well as its potential profits by public money.

Royal County Down had its losses covered as well as its potential profits by public money.

Antoinette McKeown

Antoinette McKeown

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Royal County Down had its losses covered as well as its potential profits by public money.

Protecting the global status of a Co Down golf club was factored into it being awarded more than £1.5m under a controversial Covid grants scheme, a Stormont committee has heard.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard from Department for Communities and Sport NI officials during an evidence session on Thursday as part of its inquiry into the Sports Sustainability Fund (SSF).

Last month the Northern Ireland Audit Office published a report which found the £23m fund had allocated significant funds without examining the bank reserves of those organisations availing of the scheme.

The largest grant paid was £1.562m to Royal Co Down Golf Club, which according to the Audit Office report had accounts from December 2019 that showed a “very significant bank balance and a high level of reserves”.

The fund was one of a number of schemes delivered by Stormont departments to help various sectors deal with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tracey Meharg, permanent secretary for the Communities department, said that in relation to the large sums allocated under the scheme, that if it was to be designed again, “we would put in a stronger statement of need”.

“That’s acknowledged in the [PAC] report,” she added.

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"But the money that was paid was an investment in sport, an investment in our infrastructure.”

Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown, whose organisation facilitated the scheme, stressed the approach taken under the SSF was to ensure clubs were left “no better, no worse” in terms of Covid recovery.

Committee member Andrew Muir insisted there had been “real public concern” in how the scheme allocated its “significant funds”.

In response, Ms McKeown said the scheme was implemented under tight time constraints, a factor that was also acknowledged by the Audit Office.

Ms Meharg also stressed the “scheme was there to support them in terms of financial loss but also prepare them in terms of going forward”.

“Sport NI designed a scheme where they looked at three years' accounts and the net loss was evident,” explained the DfC official.

“It’s not surprising that for larger clubs they would have suffered larger losses,” she added.

Asked if the £1.5m allocated to Royal Co Down represented “value for money”, the senior civil servant said she believed it did because Co Down has “two of the top golf clubs in the world”.

"We have a golf sector which is the envy of many around us,” she explained.

She added: "When I saw that award [of £1.5m] coming through I asked the question: was there a robust process to assess to make sure this was correct?”

Ms Meharg said she took comfort from the fact the net losses were “absolutely evidenced”, adding there was a “strong case” the club could lose its top status if not for the scheme.

Committee members heard the pandemic had put at risk Royal Co Down’s plans for a new irrigation system, which could negatively affect its global ranking.

Ms McKeown, however, insisted the funding was not specifically for the irrigation system, but rather the net losses.


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