Paul Givan: I spent £500k to improve the safety of racing
Minister for Communities Paul Givan has told how the tragic death of young motorcycling ace Malachi Mitchell-Thomas at the North West 200 helped inspire him to try and save lives in the future by investing £500,000 of government money in improving the safety of the sport.
In May earlier this year, 20-year-old Malachi from Chorley in Lancashire, riding for the Cookstown BE Racing team, passed away after crashing his bike during the Supertwins race leading to what Givan describes as one of his most important actions since coming into office seven months ago.
For North West 200 Director Mervyn Whyte, the death of Mitchell-Thomas proved particularly difficult to accept.
It was the first time in his 16-year association with the North West event that Whyte had experienced a fatality on the actual track. Four other crash victims who have passed away in that time either died in hospital or on their way there, including race legend Robert Dunlop in 2008.
Whyte held the young rider's hand at the scene of the accident on the coast road, outside Portrush, before the Englishman slipped into unconsciousness as medical teams fought to save him.
Both Whyte and North Antrim MP and big bikes fan Ian Paisley Junior held a meeting with Givan shortly after the tragedy.
"When the tragic loss of Malachi's life happened at the North West 200, Mervyn Whyte and Ian Paisley Junior came to see me early in office," recalled Minister Givan, who was determined to help.
"Whenever a death occurs there is the debate about when we should ban road racing. I wouldn't support a ban but there was a recognition of could we be doing more around safety? There was no budget line or money allocated for this but I felt we needed to tackle those issues.
"This hasn't been finalised yet and this figure isn't publicly out there but by the end of this financial year it will be £500,000 that I have spent.
"That's working with the North West 200, who have got £124,000, and the Ulster Grand Prix, who will also get a significant allocation which will be more than that.
"I have met with 2 and 4, the sporting body that works with some of the smaller races, and there will be an allocation of funding that will go to them. That is all to do with safety for riders and spectators.
"That's where I can get involved in the sport. We are never going to be able to take away the risks entirely and you won't be able to remove the fact that someone like young Malachi may lose their life again, but that happens in other sports too, not just motorsport. Certainly though we need to recognise the risks as much as we can.
"This is the biggest single investment that has gone into motorsport. There wasn't the money to do that when I came into office but I identified other priorities and this was a priority for me.
"I've met with Mervyn from the North West, Ulster Grand Prix officials and the folks at Armoy. They showed me the telegraph pole at the corner of the church on the Armoy circuit which presents a safety risk and that will be addressed. That will help minimise the risk of losing lives."
Givan points out his other most important duty since becoming Minister for Communities, which has sport as part of its portfolio, also relates to saving lives.
"The two most important things I have done are both to do with trying to save lives," he said, with a sense of responsibility and pride.
"As well as motorsport I've put serious funding into defibrillators. We have had stories in the last number of years about people having sudden heart failures on the pitch or in training and I recognised there was a need in this area.
"There hadn't been money put into delivering commitments that had been made and so when the resource was identified we were able to provide hundreds of defibrillators.
"That is being rolled out and who knows that could save a life, which is vital in sport.
"This has been a glorious year for Northern Ireland sport and it is great to celebrate that, but the most crucial thing I've done in sport in my first seven months are the investments in defibrillators and motorsport."
TOMORROW: Givan on Casement Park latest, his much talked about GAA point, what's going on at Sport NI plus his ambitions for sport in 2017