Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley: 'The last thing Malachi Mitchell-Thomas's family needs are attacks on sport he loved'

By Ian Paisley jnr

This week our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, who so tragically lost his life in a brief moment while competing at the North West 200. At these times the memory and wishes of the competitor and his family are often overcome by knee-jerk calls for wholesale change and even an end to the sport.

It is right that such accidents should cause us all to reflect on the sport and ask questions of it. But now is not the time to roll over and say it's gone. Now is the time to salute the bravest of the brave and to make sure the memory of young men like Malachi is emblazoned in our memories by building on and improving upon the sport he died for.

I love motorsport. But motorcycle racing, and in particular road racing, is the absolute pinnacle of man, machine and speed, timed around a circuit.

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Whilst Formula 1 and rally car sport are often proclaimed to be the height of the profession - and certainly they have the glamour and lots of the resources - they are, for the millions of followers and petrolheads, out of reach most of the time.

Motorcycle road racing is, by contrast, on our doorstep. Northern Ireland is the capital of the world when it comes to the sport. Some will shout: "What about the Isle of Man?" However, the Isle of Man is all about time trials of man and machine in the lonely pursuit of chasing against the clock. Road racing is on-the-edge-of-your-seat raw racing.

I've been going to the NW200 since I was 11. I've only missed a couple, and one was the time the entire event was called off because of foot and mouth disease. I can vividly remember my brother-in-law picking me up in the early hours of a Saturday. I pulled on scrambler boots and a wax coat and strapped on a lid and climbed on board his bright yellow Honda 750 F1. It was magnificent.

We travelled up through Ballymena, Ballymoney and around the coast road. We had time enough to do a lap of the circuit until we found a place on the track just opposite Juniper Hill caravan park. We walked around the pits, spoke to the riders - just ordinary blokes, most quite shy - who let their skill as pilots of these machines do their talking.

The sound, the smell and the excitement was fantastic, and it was right on our doorstep. From that day forward I eagerly awaited the next summer for the NW200. Later I started following the Ulster Grand Prix and the other local races at mid-Antrim and elsewhere. Then off to the TT. I even took in some English track races.

When I got my own bike I would head up to the NW200 with a team of comrades, always stopping for a big fry-up at the Copper Kettle in Bushmills. Some of my cherished memories are going to the race with Dad. He got more attention than some of the bikes! But he could go there and just enjoy the craic and be himself. Now I go with my own sons, and wouldn't miss that time for anything.

Each year you would see the growing numbers of fans and supporters and realise that this was a united community interested in the sport. People from all over the island were there enjoying the event, and as I got older it was people from all over the world who talked about Northern Ireland in hushed reverence as a capital of the sport.

For someone more used to hearing their country talked about as a failure and a disaster riven with troubles, it was a very happy release to hear about a different Northern Ireland.

There is no point in me reciting the names of the legends past and present who are known for the sport, other than to emphasise that all of the very best in the sport are from here. This wee part of these islands has produced the world's greatest bike people in all disciplines. Look at the world leaders today, Johnny Rea and the Laverty brothers dominant on the world stage in circuit racing.

Road racing is different because it takes place at so few locations. Only New Zealand, here and a few places in Europe. But it is road racing that determines these men and women are at the top of the game. For the region it means millions of pounds of investment. The NW200 was like the Monaco of Northern Ireland at the weekend. It is estimated that it generates more than £6m for the Portrush, Portstewart and Coleraine economies per year.

Last year streaming and television licensing deals meant more than 90 million people watched the races. And 100,000 people visited Northern Ireland for that race weekend. It remains the island's largest outdoor sporting event by miles. And that is only one race! Take the entirety of the event - the investment in infrastructure, the purchase of machinery and the goodwill work of thousands of club volunteers - and you have a sport that is by far the most popular in its reach and numbers than any other.

Now, I accept that too often the sport is blighted with death and horrific injury. Last year my own friend Stephen Thompson was seriously injured in a life-changing accident. I counted both Robert and Joey Dunlop as not only acquaintances, but friends whom I knew and whose families I have grown to admire and continue to have regular contact with. Robert's sons William and Michael I know, and have watched them grow up to be fine young talented sportsmen.

Each tragic death or injury caused by the sport is awful and is never shrugged off as "that's just racing" because I know the tireless effort organisers go to control the sport. But most accidents are freak in that either machinery breaks or the pilot makes an error when the margin for error is so narrow.

The sport can't be stopped. Frankly, it's like saying all contact sports should be stopped. Last year someone died playing cricket because the ball struck the batsman's neck. Should that be stopped? Horse racing, watersports, boxing, other motorsports, rugby and more each carry a danger of injury or death. No one competes because of that, but it is the nature of men and women to strive to test themselves to the limit.

Many of us do not seek the challenge. We are content to watch others in the gladiator ring and applaud them for being the conquers of their chosen discipline. But let's not because of our cowardice - and it is cowardice - dictate what others can and can't do in a controlled atmosphere.

Let us instead celebrate the brilliance of these men and women - yes, women. One of my favourite competitors is Maria Costello, a fantastic woman who is the fastest female racer at both the Isle of Man TT and the NW200 and an inspiration to many other young women interested in the sport.

Road racing and the family of Malachi do not need to hear critics of this sport - they need to hear validation and support for the sport. I have called upon - and I do so again - the Executive to see what more it can do to increase funding and support to this sport and ensure this province remains the capital of road racing the world over.

Ian Paisley jnr is the DUP MP for North Antrim

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