Northern Ireland news

Caral Ní Chuilín to meet sporting bodies amid Covid-19 confusion over spectators

Fans at the Coleraine Showgrounds for the Danske Bank Premiership clash between Coleraine and Ballymena on Friday night. Picture by Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press

STORMONT minister Carál Ní Chuilín is due to meet representatives of sporting bodies today amid confusion over coronavirus restrictions.

It is understood she will speak with figures from the Irish FA, Ulster Rugby and GAA after fans were left in limbo about whether they could attend fixtures.

A letter issued by the communities minister on Friday evening stated that spectators were not permitted under new regulations introduced as part of a four-week 'circuit-breaker'.

It came just over an hour before the first match of the new Irish Premiership soccer season, with supporters having already begun arriving at Coleraine Showgrounds.

However, First Minister Arlene Foster later said fans are not banned.

"The existing position is maintained, permitting a limited number to attend. Preposterous for clubs to be told anything to the contrary," she said.

The new regulations state that no indoor sport or organised contact sport involving mixing of households, other than at elite level, can take place and no mass events involving more than 15 people, except for allowed outdoor sporting events where risk assessment has been carried out.

There was further confusion on Friday night as the legislation was not published until several hours after it was to have taken effect.

Ms Ni Chuilin later appealed for games to be played "behind closed doors".

She said she issued her letter following advice from the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser.

"I'm appealing to the sporting bodies to take my advice and to try to play their events behind closed doors because I think we all are trying our best to be safe, to protect lives and to protect each other," she told the BBC.

"I have a duty as minister of sport to ensure that not only are the sporting bodies, the fans, but the general public are protected."

She also revealed that she was preparing a bid for "substantial money to try and help those clubs" and would bring the issue of supporters at games to her executive colleagues this week.

"I cannot ignore the medical and scientific advice," she said.

"It's really important that we collectively as an executive adhere to that advice."

On Saturday, the Irish Football Association issued a statement welcoming the fact that fans "will still be admitted at elite sporting events which are allowed under the regulations".

Limited numbers of fans had been allowed to attend recent top-level rugby and soccer matches in Belfast.

However, the GAA's Allianz league competition resumed yesterday without spectators attending.

And as the Republic's higher education minister Simon Harris indicated new restrictions will be introduced across the Republic, it was unclear if any restrictions on outdoor sports will threaten the All-Ireland championship due to be staged next month.

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