Irish Football Association must give girls equal status or I'll cut cash: Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has warned the Irish Football Association to be committed to the future of women's football or face serious questions about Stormont funding.
Ni Chuilin has held meetings with the IFA recently and is keen to see the women's game flourish here rather than be left behind by other countries, insisting that it must NOT be considered an after thought in comparison to the men's game.
Last Friday the IFA launched its Girls' and Women's Football Plan which aims to put structures in place that will provide Northern Ireland's female players with the opportunity to qualify for a major tournament within the next 10 to 15 years.
All worthy stuff, but to reveal this plan ahead of the busiest weekend for Northern Ireland sport in 2014 so far, with high profile events taking place such as Carl Frampton's world title eliminator, Ulster Rugby's Heineken Cup quarter-final and the Irish Cup semi-finals – a competition which is run by the IFA themselves – was surely a major own goal.
The IFA made a mess of the timing... when on another day with fewer sporting attractions to look forward to they could have maximised publicity for women's football in Northern Ireland.
The promotion of the women's game is an area of concern for the Minister, who has not been shy in handing millions of pounds to football, especially in relation to the forthcoming refurbishment of Windsor Park, since she took over at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).
Any future funding for the sport, though, may depend on how seriously the IFA treat women's football.
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"I have seen a big change in the Irish FA since I have come in to the department," said Ni Chuilin (pictured).
"I work very well with them and have a lot of respect for the individuals I work with, but there is still much to be done in various areas and women's soccer is one of those areas.
"The money that the IFA are receiving to develop Windsor Park isn't just for a brand new stadium. It also relates to community benefits and supporting developmental squads within their sport and by that I mean ALL squads.
"I've asked the IFA to make sure the women aren't considered as an after thought.
"Although people may not have appreciated it and some may not have agreed with it, I put strong conditions into the contract for funding.
"When I talk about community benefits and looking at gaps in terms of equality legislation that means girls, young women and people with disabilities being taken into account.
"If I get a sense that the women are being left behind, I will use the power of my funding to make a difference.
"I don't want to force people to do it. They should be doing it because it is the right thing to do.
"The Northern Ireland women's team needs to be promoted more in my opinion and the IFA should be promoting them with the same equality as their senior men's team – and I don't believe they do.
"As well as the millions soccer is receiving in relation to the Windsor Park project, I am also committed to give almost half a million pounds a year to soccer on top of that to go out and do outreach and help groups who are furthest removed from the sport."
A new tranche of funding is due to be handed out by DCAL next year and the IFA will have to satisfy Ni Chuilin's demands if they are to get the full benefit of that cash.
"When the next round of funding comes along, I will be scrutinising it to such an extent that if I don't see enough support in what the IFA are doing for girls and women's soccer we are going to be having some serious conversations," warned the Sports Minister.
While Ni Chuilin's comments are a shot across IFA bows, it is understood some within the Association connected to the women's game will welcome them, believing someone with influence is finally in their corner.
Tomorrow the Northern Ireland women's team are away to the Faroe Islands in a World Cup qualifier having suffered a 4-0 home defeat to Sweden on Saturday.