Northern Ireland’s most senior coroner has called into question the future of motorcycle roadracing in a damning letter sent to the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL).
John Leckey asked if the high-risk sport is still “acceptable” given the speed modern machines, the nature of public roads, the unpredictable consequences of mechanical failure and the difficulty of ensuring spectator safety.
In the letter he wrote: “The question must be asked whether it is acceptable in the 21st century to have motorcycle races on public roads?”
The Coroner’s controversial comments come as thousands of Ulster bike fans prepare for the start of another racing season.
His letter was written in January after an inquest found that the death of John Donnan in a high-speed smash at the Tandragee 100 event in 2007 was “avoidable”.
He wrote: “As the responsible minister you may be in a position to initiate action that could prevent the recurrence of similar fatalities.”
Roadracing is one of Northern Ireland’s most popular sports made famous by legends like Ballymoney man Joey Dunlop and his brother Robert both of whom were killed in competition.
Major events such as the Northwest 200 in Portrush and the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and generate millions of pounds.
The Coroner’s letter continued: “I am anxious that as much as possible should be done to reduce the risk of any misfortune occurring to anyone whether competing, assisting or spectating. Many children attend such events.
“I recognise that if it were not for the efforts and enthusiasm of unpaid volunteers none of these events would happen. I am advised that Motorcycle Clubs have limited financial means and in the case of the Tandragee 100 the race organisers did not consider obtaining professional advice in relation to the construction and layout of the chicane. However, this letter is not a plea on behalf of motorcycle clubs for funding to assist in staging these events but rather a flagging up of my real concerns in relation to the adequacy of present safety precautions at circuits and my desire that everything possible should be done to reduce the risks of participating in and attending what is recognised to be a dangerous sport.”
Last summer Hill McCook (75) was killed while watching the Armoy Road Race in Co Antrim. Inquests into his death and that of racer Mark Young who died at the NW200 last year are expected to take place within months.
Mr Leckey also noted: “It should not be forgotten that whilst many racing teams and their riders are professional with large budgets, the organisers are amateurs, albeit keen enthusiasts. My principal concern, however is how spectator safety can be ensured when spectators are allowed to be positioned so close to the racing.”
Sports Minister Nelson McCausland said in a statement that he was “greatly concerned” at the number of roadracing fatalities and was taking the matter “very seriously.” The department said an additional £2m had been allocated to improving motorsport safety over the next two years.
A DCAL spokesman said: “The department recognises that roadracing is part of the sporting and cultural fabric of Northern Ireland. There is an expectation that event promoters and the governing bodies will take their responsibilities seriously to ensure events are as safe as possible for both spectators and competitors.
“Roadracing events, such as the NW200 and the Ulster Grand Prix are strategic events for both the sport and tourism industries in Northern Ireland.
“Funding alone will not resolve all the safety issues. Responsibility for health and safety at motorsport events is a matter in the first instance for the promoters of the events and governing bodies.”
DCAL is expected to meet with representatives from the Motorcycle Union of Ireland (MCUI) next week and the issue of safety is likely to top the agenda.
MCUI Ulster Centre chairman John Acheson said the body was “looking at the whole safety process. We understand the concerns and in some cases we have been implementing more safety since John Donnan died”.
“We are looking at other steps that can be taken as well. It also depends on the minister’s response.”