Leading article

Rates bill unfair on sports clubs

The rates system helps to cover the cost of a range of essential public services and, as long as it is applied in a fair and appropriate way, provides an important fund-raising function for the authorities.

Unfortunately, there is clear evidence that the structures in place across Northern Ireland contain basic contradictions and are unduly penalising voluntary organisations which carry out vital work in many areas.

The Northern Ireland Office decided in 2006 that a number of community buildings, including Orange Halls, would be exempt from paying rates, after concerted lobbying by the DUP.

It was a move designed to recognise what was perceived as the positive role played by such facilities, particularly in rural districts, and a report six years after its introduction estimated that the Orange Order and its sister institutions had already saved almost £5m as a result.

There was always an overwhelming case for extending the measure to cover amateur sporting clubs which make an outstanding contribution at all levels, but particularly on behalf of underage GAA, soccer and rugby players.

However, when legislation was tabled on this basis by the Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay last year, it was vetoed by the DUP despite being endorsed by a convincing democratic vote of 41 to 31 in the Assembly.

The DUP blocked the motion through a highly controversial petition of concern ,a power which was intended to safeguard minority rights at Stormont but in the view of many observers has been regularly used in hugely dubious circumstances.

Although DUP members insisted they were acting in support of the hospitality sector, over suggestions that it might be undermined by clubs which are licensed for entertainment purposes, their stance was greeted with amazement by sporting organisations in general and the GAA in particular.

As we have reported, one small GAA club in Co Tyrone has expressed fears that it could be forced to close its doors after receiving a revised rates bill which, even taking into account the 80 per cent reduction which covers amateur sporting bodies, amounts to £3,000.

The experience of Tattyreagh GAC epitomises the pressures felt by its counterparts across all sporting codes who want to promote their games, as well as a healthy and progressive lifestyle, but find themselves concentrating instead on serious financial challenges.

There can be no justification for giving a privileged economic status to Orange lodges while effectively discriminating against GAA, soccer and rugby clubs who are often struggling for survival.

If a new bill which addresses all these issues cannot be agreed swiftly, the claims by our new executive that it is determined to act in the best interests of all sections of our society will look distinctly hollow.

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