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Communities Minister Paul Givan: 'I will be a champion for sport here'

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's footballers can inspire everyone in the country at the Euro 2016 finals, according to the new Sports Minister Paul Givan.

Appointed last week as the Minister for the Department of Communities, the 34-year-old from Lisburn has sport in Northern Ireland as part of his remit.

Succeeding Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin in the post, the DUP MLA insists he is relishing the role promising to be 'a champion for sport'.

In his first interview since taking up the post, the Lisburn native exclusively told the Belfast Telegraph of his vision for sport, how it can be a uniting force, why the Northern Ireland football team can inspire a nation at the Euro 2016 finals and that he would welcome the opportunity to attend his first GAA match.

He said: "There are a number of areas that are going to be challenging in my department and sport is one of them.

"It's an area that I'm looking forward to being involved in.

"I see how sport can unite and bring people together in our community in a way that sometimes can be challenging in other areas.

"I very much want to see sport as a key part of what we're doing in Northern Ireland because I see what it's doing across different areas of government and the value that it has so I'll be a champion for sport in Northern Ireland.

"I see sport being a key part of the department because of the benefits it brings to Northern Ireland. Very much so, I'll be a champion for sport."

The husband to Emma and father of three girls (Annie 8, Hollie 3, Maisie 3) has landed the post at an exciting time with Northern Ireland preparing to play in their first major tournament for 30 years.

He attended Friday night's Windsor Park send-off when Michael O'Neill's men beat Belarus 3-0 and is hoping to go to France to see at least one match at the Euro finals.

The Manchester United fan believes that Northern Ireland's appearance at the European Championships for the first time will provide a "massive" lift throughout the land.

"I believe Northern Ireland playing in a major tournament will have a massive impact," the youngest ever Sports Minister (right) told the Belfast Telegraph in his first interview since taking on his new job.

"I was born in 1981 so for people of my age down who don't remember the previous tournaments it'll be a new experience, and for those who can remember 1982, 1986 and maybe even 1958 when we reached World Cups it will bring back all those memories and they get to relive those again.

"People will get caught up in it. They already were as we got through all the qualification stages, as it got ever closer people were 'Daring To Dream', in terms of the catchphrase that was around, and once the finals begin even more will become engrossed with it.

"I think it's a real opportunity for us. There will be young people who will be inspired as a result of watching these players and that will get them involved in football.

"At any major sporting event you always find that, as I did growing up whenever Wimbledon was on, you'd end up getting involved with tennis for a period of time and whenever the Olympics was on you started to get involved in athletics!

"There's no doubt this is a real opportunity to capture young people who will watch the football, get caught up in the moment of it and the excitement. Michael O'Neill and his players can inspire a nation.

"The country is very much behind Northern Ireland. The whole community is coming behind Northern Ireland and that's something that has been developing over the past couple of years.

"This team very much represents all of our community and I'm confident our country is going to be having a really good time in terms of supporting them."

The Republic of Ireland, led by former Northern Ireland skipper Martin O'Neill, will also be in France at the Euro finals. The former chair of the Justice Committee says he hopes they have a strong showing at the tournament.

"I can remember the Republic of Ireland beating Italy in the World Cup and cheering their winning goal when it was scored by Ray Houghton," he recalled inside his office in the Lighthouse Building in Belfast.

"Obviously people are going to be very supportive of the Republic of Ireland and I want them to do well, though not as well as Northern Ireland from a sporting rivalry point of view.

"There's no doubt people from Northern Ireland are going to be supporting the Republic of Ireland, there's a history there and that's something that should be welcomed. I have no difficulty in people supporting the Republic of Ireland.

"Having Michael O'Neill to take us, and Martin O'Neill as the Republic manager, it just demonstrates the talent that we have in terms of producing sporting heroes, and that's just in football. When you consider the people we have in sport, Northern Ireland punches well above its weight for the size of the population we have. You think of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke in golf and Carl Frampton in boxing and then other sporting successes that we've had.

"Northern Ireland has a great sporting heritage and we have great sporting people who have put us on the map on a global stage."

Growing up, the Lisburn native loved playing football in the streets with his brothers Mark and Phillip - he also has two sisters, Ruth and Jessica - and was a midfielder in his school team at Laurelhill and continues to play with friends to this day.

He says that one of the things he enjoys about sport is its ability to bring different communities together and adds that he is committed to a vision moving forward.

"In terms of participation, I see the value of people who are engaged in sport," said Givan who took part in a fun sports quiz during the interview.

"I see how sport can unite and bring people together in our community in a way that sometimes can be challenging in other areas and whenever you talk about a shared future, you look at sport and the people that are involved in sport and its cross-community activities.

"I very much want to see sport as a key part of what we're doing in Northern Ireland, so I'll be a champion for sport whether the benefits come to tourism or health. Sport cannot be seen as a single area you're involved in, it's much broader than that and so I want to see sport integrated across a whole range of areas we're involved in.

"You're the first interview I've carried out as Minister of Communities as I see sport being a key part of the department because of the benefits it brings to Northern Ireland."

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