Boxing hero Paddy Barnes has hit out at the £1 million budget cuts for Sport NI warning that decreased investment will see sport in Northern Ireland go backwards. The Commonwealth Games champion believes that sport here does not receive enough financial backing from government and is shocked that the Northern Ireland Executive is taking more funding away.
That will be to the tune of £1,037,000, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today, which is a cut of 11.2% for next year's Sport NI budget.
It is a huge loss which the organisation admits is going to be extremely difficult to deal with and ironically comes at a time when Northern Ireland competitors are riding high in the sporting world.
Many of them including Olympic medallist Barnes are funded by Sport NI and use the excellent facilities at the Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI).
Often seen as a controversial character, the north Belfast man also talks a lot of common sense where sport is concerned.
Speaking about the £1 million budget cuts, which follow Sport NI being told to save £400,000 in the current financial year, Barnes said: "In my opinion there is not enough money being invested in sport as it is, and now they are taking more away making things even more difficult for high performance sports.
"I hope people won't be expecting us to produce a record medal haul at the next Commonwealth Games because we are going to go backwards with less investment. To go forwards you need more investment and these cuts are obviously not going to help that."
Barnes also talked about the social benefits of sport and how it can change lives.
"Sport isn't just about big stars performing all over the world, it's about the general public and how it makes them feel and the joy that it brings them," he said.
"Sport is something that can have a positive impact. It helps get kids off the streets and makes people healthier and fitter and gives everyone a better way of living. It can also help with the problem of obesity in children and adults and in turn that puts less pressure on hospitals. It all works in a circle. To me sport has a big part to play in society and is very important to our local communities."
Barnes urged the government not to make more cuts to Sport NI, as did multiple Paralympic champion Jason Smyth and Commonwealth Games bronze medal winner, judo star, Lisa Kearney, both of whom stated that decreased funding could affect their ability to compete at the highest levels of their sports.
Sport NI Chief Executive Antoinette McKeown and her team have put together a new strategy for 2015 'Sport United, Together Better' but implementing that fully is virtually impossible due to the cutbacks.
Ms McKeown, who was informed by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) about the cuts, said: "Sport NI is bringing through a new strategy for next year. We had put a lot of thought and effort into creating very strong pathways from grassroots sports into talent spotting and talent nurturing and bringing people all the way into SINI and really strengthening that pathway. That has now been seriously disrupted with the amount of money we have had to take out of it.
"Also we fund coaches at grassroots participation level into the performance level of club structure and right into our high performance coaches and the access to training and development we give them. All of that will have to be cut significantly.
"As for our athlete investment programme we have taken significant money out of that. Us being able to sustain the level of athletes at SINI is questionable at the moment.
"We know you cannot produce world class athletes without serious investment. I think it is really sad this is happening in a year when sport here and sports stars from Northern Ireland have performed so well on a global stage, such as Kelly Gallagher creating history by winning the first British Paralympic gold ever.
"The two organisations that helped get her there, Disability Sports NI and Sport NI, are having to cope with serious reductions.
"We have an Activ 8 programme with schools which has encouraged over 100,000 schoolchildren to participate in sport. It is an award winning programme but it is now finished because we don't have any money for that next year.
"We are having to cut our cloth. We are preparing our new strategy and corporate plan aligned to the new budget cuts on the way and are finding that incredibly difficult which is why we are saying please do not impose any further cuts in this sector."
Asked about the possibility of job losses in sport, Ms McKeown said: "We are trying our best to protect jobs. Northern Ireland has come a long way in the last 10 years. There are now almost 20,000 jobs in sports related activities in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately we can't guarantee, on the back of these cuts, that there won't be job losses in this sector we have spent so long trying to professionalise.
"We will though continue to impress on government to see the impact and difference sport makes for people here and the impact it makes on their every day lives."