Northern Ireland Motorsport Taskforce Report

Monday 15th July 2019

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Northern Ireland Office

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Iain Stewart.)

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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I wish to bring to the attention of the House the Northern Ireland motorsport taskforce report. I do so 24 hours after the historic victory by Lewis Hamilton—a wonderful British racer and a wonderful ambassador for motorsport across the United Kingdom and across the world—who achieved his sixth victory at Silverstone. We wish him and his family well as they enjoy the celebration of that event.

Northern Ireland, and indeed Ireland, boast a rich history of motorsport prowess. It was Ireland in 1903 that gave British racing teams their green colour. Motorised transport was compelled not to exceed 20 mph on British roads, but the then Gordon Bennett cup—held in Ireland, which was part of the Union, and a very happy part of the Union, I might add—had no such restrictions on speed, and British teams painted their motor vehicles green out of respect for the roads they were racing on.

Today, Northern Ireland continues that rich history of motorsport. Jonny Rea, who is the four times world superbike champion, hails from just outside my constituency, and he is on his way to his fifth world championship. He is better than any other racer from these islands in terms of the history he has given us. Indeed, even Carl Fogarty, a wonderful British racer, was not able to exceed the record of Jonny Rea.

The Dunlop family hail from my constituency. There is no better name in motorsport racing than Joey Dunlop. He, his brother Robert Dunlop, and Robert’s sons William and Michael all competed on the roads and on some of the tracks, winning Formula 1 medals for their prowess. Sadly, of course, Joey, Robert and William all lost their lives to the sport they loved.

Brian Reid is a Formula 2 champion from Northern Ireland, although on four wheels, not two. Colin Turkington, from Portadown, is the current British touring car champion, followed quickly behind by Chris Smiley from Carrickfergus. In Formula 1, we have also had the honours of Eddie Irvine, John Watson and many more. It tells us a bit about the history of motorsport that it beats through the veins of many people in Northern Ireland. Indeed, world rally teams have not only co-drivers but engineers from Northern Ireland developing the sport.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Obviously, North Antrim features highly in what my hon. Friend has said. However, my constituency also features highly when it comes to motorsport. At Kirkistown, we have motorbikes, racing cars and other vehicles. That is an important part of our history. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the future, there needs to be an opportunity for a major motorsports event for Northern Ireland—something special that could set the sport off?

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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15 Jul 2019, 9:01 p.m.

I really appreciate my hon. Friend intervening when he did. He is absolutely right. There has been some investment in Northern Ireland in local tracks such as Kirkistown in his constituency. Other tracks should be developed and encouraged to be developed, and they should also be resourced. Of course, they enhance the development of motorsport in Northern Ireland. If young kids who are starting off go karting do not have the tracks available, they will not be able to race and to develop their skill. Indeed, many of them have to come across to tracks on the mainland, and their talent is lost to Northern Ireland. I will come on to the point my hon. Friend raises about a major motor event. I think he is on to something important.

The motorsport taskforce was announced in January 2017, after a fatality at a road race on 14 May 2016 where a young man called Malachi Mitchell lost his life. The then Northern Ireland Minister at the Department for Communities, Mr Paul Givan MLA, established a taskforce to examine safety measures in motorsport and the contribution motorsport makes to Northern Ireland’s economy. It was a visionary decision by the then Minister, as no serious research had been carried out into the contribution of motorsport to the Northern Ireland economy up to that point. It also set in place a major contribution to road racing safety. In fact, the Minister’s intervention resulted in the highest spend ever on road racing safety measures in Northern Ireland: the Department for Communities contributed over £500,000 to road safety measures.

Racing on our roads can never be entirely safe. It can never be without challenges. It will always be a high-octane, high-risk sport, but there are measures that can mitigate the risks for both competitors and spectators alike. The Minister’s intervention and his Department’s spend on special safety bales, special lights and other measures, which can be shared around race tracks and other race events, has been critical in ensuring that safety has become a priority on our road circuits. In two weeks’ time the Armoy road race will take place, and it will be able to share with other road race events some of the special safety equipment that is now available. That will improve safety. Out of a tragedy, that major spend has been allowed to take place.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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15 Jul 2019, 9:02 p.m.

My hon. Friend will of course know that my brother Keith raced motorbikes. Sixteen years ago this August, he had a very serious accident. He came off his bike and was seriously injured both physically and mentally. It will stay with him for the rest of his life. He is still madly keen and interested in motorbikes. It is very important that we make the improvements my hon. Friend refers to, so that racing can continue on the roads of Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I remember watching his brother race. He was a brave rider and he thoroughly enjoyed the sport he participated in. The ability to spend significant money on safety measures is a way to develop the sport and to encourage people to come into the sport in the knowledge that they will be as protected as much as possible.

The taskforce was announced in January 2017. Its terms of reference were to examine the potential contribution of motorsport to Northern Ireland in the context of its being a culturally significant sport; to determine how motorsport can best address sports development, safety, marketing and tourism; and to engage as widely as possible with all those with an interest in the sport to inform its findings and to develop an action plan to ensure that the potential of motorsport is maximised in all its aspects.

I was given the honour of being asked to be the independent chairman of the taskforce. We brought together organisations and various Government Departments to be a part of the taskforce. The Department for Communities, the Department for Infrastructure, which is responsible for our road service in Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland, Tourism Northern Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives all contributed and have been full-time members of the taskforce for the past two years. We also drew on the secretariat from the Department for Communities, and I pay tribute to Government Departments in Northern Ireland. They stepped up to the plate and gave their very best people to the taskforce, allowing me as chairman to have at my fingertips the best people to discuss the development and future of a very important sport in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute in particular to the Department for Communities for the way in which it organised the secretariat for the last two years of the taskforce.

We were able to bring to the taskforce the various governing bodies that organise motorsport in Northern Ireland. The 2 & 4 Wheel Motorsport Steering Group, which is the overall umbrella group, the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland (Ulster Centre) Limited, the North of Ireland Karting Association, the Association of Northern Ireland Car Clubs and the Motorcycle Racing Association Ireland Limited all made major contributions to the taskforce report. They made themselves freely available and allowed us to cross-examine them and go through the evidence of the motorsport organisations.

We also heard from key event organisers. We have some major racing events, none more so than the Ulster grand prix. We also have major motocross events and, of course, the North West 200. The organisers of those privateer events also gave us evidence.

The most compelling evidence that we received was from the men and women behind the visor—the people who champion and participate in the sport. They included Maria Costello MBE, the late William Dunlop, Alastair Seeley, Chris Smiley, Colin Turkington and Graeme Irwin, all of them involved in either motocross, four-wheel racing, road racing or on-track racing. Each of them gave us a contribution that was unparalleled in terms of what they really need as competitors. They demonstrated to us the gaps that exist and how they need total confidence in the people around them, in the marshalling of races and in the many volunteers who contribute to motorsport. Motorsport relies on an army of volunteers to allow it to carry out the very best races. I mentioned William Dunlop, who made a major contribution to us. A few weeks later, unfortunately, he lost his life in the Republic of Ireland participating in the sport that he loved. The entire taskforce was moved by the contribution that he made and by him telling us about what he required as a participant and what he would like to see happening. The first part of the report was dedicated to William and his family as a mark of respect to him.

There are four governing bodies that organise motorsport in Northern Ireland. Together, they have about 80 member clubs and about 6,000 club participants, the vast majority of whom are male. A considerable number of them are in their early 20s and 66% of the membership are involved in four-wheel motorsport, so overwhelmingly, it is four-wheel motorsport that Northern Ireland contributes to. We are often considered to be the country of two-wheel motorsport, but four-wheel motorsport is an area where we make a significant contribution.

We decided to carry out an analysis of how much the sport is worth to Northern Ireland, and it was astounding. After about a year and a half of research—the first time that such research was carried out—we found that the gross annual economic impact of motorsport to the Northern Ireland economy is in excess of £100 million. Each year, about £60 million is spent in the supply chain by people participating in the sport. Major motor events raise about £10 million a year for the economy and minor events contribute about £15 million to it. The promotional benefit in how we are able to market our little country is worth about £20 million to our economy.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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15 Jul 2019, 9:09 p.m.

My hon. Friend is gracious and kind in giving way again. When it comes to the army of volunteers and the thousands of participants in motorsport in Northern Ireland, the spin-off is the tourism potential, which he rightly refers to. Does he agree the bed nights for the local economy, along with the clear potential for more, mean that we should insist on more funding? If we can spend and speculate more for the future, we can reap rewards through the report.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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15 Jul 2019, 9:09 p.m.

My hon. Friend has identified that there is a significant opportunity. The volunteers he mentions need to be properly recognised. The report identifies that this army of volunteers is now so well trained that it could be a provider of training for people wanting to learn about the sport, not only in Northern Ireland but across other parts of the UK. The volunteers could also be used at many other events. As the House knows, later this week we are going to have one of the largest ever events in Northern Ireland: the Open. The volunteer expertise that Northern Ireland now has at its fingertips could be utilised for other similar events.

Earlier, in one of my hon. Friend’s interventions, he asked whether there were other events we could be putting on. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me say that yes, there are. I would love to see a world rally championship round coming to Northern Ireland. We have John McGrillen, the head of Tourism Northern Ireland, saying that getting it in Northern Ireland is a real prospect and, importantly, the head of WRC saying he wants to take the sport to Northern Ireland. That is an opportunity that we should not miss. It would make the Open we are about to have in Northern Ireland look like small fry in terms of world marketing opportunities, world access to television rights and, importantly, spectator opportunities. Moreover, it would not just take place in one corner of Northern Ireland; a WRC event would take place not only in the city of Belfast, but in the north of Northern Ireland, and in the east and west. These major events suck in the entire population. The benefit and enjoyment of the event would be for all.

We need these actions to sustain the existing economic impact by improving the viability of major events, we need to review who is best placed to deliver motorsport events in the future, and we need to see improved promotion of motorsport events. By and large, these events just happen in Northern Ireland; they need to be better promoted. I think the organisers recognise that, but they are so busy wrapped up in delivering their own sport to their own sector that they cannot get off the dance floor, if you like, take the overall view and ask what is the best strategic approach.

The Minister will be pleased with the thrust of the report. We are not asking for money—for a change. We are asking for support to put in place a sustainable strategy for the entire sector, and the Government can help with that by capacity building and by pointing in the right direction. If they then come up with a strategy that requires resourcing—from the private sector as well as the public sector—they could help make sure it is done in a sustainable and beneficial way. The safety of competitors, officials and volunteers is the top priority. It is what we spent most of our time discussing on the taskforce. We cannot ever lose sight of the dangers involved in the sport, but those dangers also give a huge thrill to competitors and observers, and we must be able to marshal and galvanise that for the benefit of the Northern Ireland economy.

The governing bodies should work together to maximise their own capacity. Motorsport clubs should be allowed to generate funding to maximise media coverage and attract new followers and new events. They should be permitted a renewed focus on the marketing of motorsports to a broader audience. For example, we would like to see the delivery of a schools programme to encourage young people to come forward. Lewis Hamilton’s story is an amazing story of a young man who contributed everything. His family threw everything at karting and allowed him to come up through the ranks to be probably the world’s greatest racing driver of all time. Can that happen again? That is the challenge we have thrown down. If we allow the proper resourcing and help and identify schoolboy and schoolgirl talent, yes it can, and there is no better place for that to come from than the place where petrol seems to flow through people’s veins, and that is in Northern Ireland.

The governing bodies should work with the Department for Communities, Sport Northern Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland to develop an agreed partnership model for the delivery of the major motorsport events. I have already mentioned the WRC. Northern Ireland would be very keen to see the Government encouraging that. I am not going to talk about what happened in the House last week, but when it suits the Government, and when it suits this place, they can intervene in Northern Ireland and make things happen, and I appeal to them to give a fair wind to the development of the WRC in Northern Ireland next year. It can happen, and it should happen. I urge the Minister—who, I know, has a personal interest in this subject—to consider the opportunities, and to consider his own legacy: he could be the Minister who laid the foundations that allowed a WRC to happen in Northern Ireland.

The Department for Communities and Sport Northern Ireland should be allowed to promote talent and participation in Northern Ireland. The taskforce and I would like to see the establishment of a motorsport academy in Northern Ireland, and we have already had discussions with the Ulster University at its sports excellence centre. Many of our sporting gentlemen and ladies pay for all their sports development. There is a lot of skill out there in our universities, and it ought to be possible to capture some of the data. That could happen if we had a proper sports academy, dedicated to motorsport and those who engage in it.

The 2 & 4 Wheel Motorsport Steering Group should be allowed to develop a strategic plan to address issues that are of concern to all motorsports. I believe that that is key to the report: we need a strategy for the future of motorsport. I therefore commend the report to the Minister and the Government, and ask the Government to give it a fair wind so that it does not gather dust on a shelf, but gathers pace and achieves its objective.

John Penrose Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (John Penrose)
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15 Jul 2019, 9:16 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) on producing the report, with an awful lot of help from the various bodies that were involved in its creation, and also on organising the debate. He has made it clear just how many people and organisations across Northern Ireland, both in the motorsport racing sector and in industry, have contributed. He has managed to harness their energy and interests.

The hon. Gentleman was also good enough to point out that there had already been extensive involvement on the part of Northern Ireland civil service and Government organisations in and around Stormont. That, too bodes well, both for the quality of the report and for the direction in which the hon. Gentleman is urging not just me but, probably, the whole Stormont organisation—and, perhaps, Northern Ireland society as a whole—to progress.

The hon. Gentleman provided us with a couple of rather choice vignettes. I had no idea that “British racing green” is, in fact, better described as “Northern Ireland racing green”. That is the true history of it. I am now better equipped for games of “Trivial Pursuit” than I was before I came into the Chamber this evening.

As the hon. Gentleman said, petrol seems to run in the veins of many people of Northern Ireland, and there is a huge depth and breadth of talent there, not just among riders and drivers. He mentioned Jonny Rea, and then gave a huge list of champions who have hailed from Northern Ireland. He also rightly mentioned the large number of people who have been involved in the technical side of the sport. As I am sure we all know, the side benefits of that pool of skills—that pool of technical understanding and ability—are enormous, because they quickly rub off on other related sectors and supply chains. Manufacturing companies are then attracted to that pool of expertise, because they know that they can readily find high-quality skills in a particular area. That is true of Formula 1, for which the M4 corridor in Great Britain is already famous, but it is also true of a variety of other parts of the motorsport sector in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman was clear and helpful in listing all the Northern Ireland Departments, and all the organisations, involved in Northern Ireland motorsport that contributed to the report; I will not repeat the list. I am not sure how long it took to produce the report. It is not just a comprehensive piece of work; it is a labour of love, and perhaps not just for the hon. Gentleman. Whenever we meet people from the sector, we find that they are involved because they have a passion for it. It is not just that they like competing, although most of them do; they love the noise, the smell, the technical mastery of machinery, and the manufacturing involved. There is an entire culture around motorsports that people get hugely immersed in, and which sucks them in. People can spend their entire lives involved with it. It can be an amazingly good career or a fascinating hobby, depending on their level of commitment.

As the hon. Gentleman describes it, a number of organisations in Northern Ireland motorsport have become so engrossed in the culture that, to use his phrase, they have not necessarily had time to get off the dance floor and think about how they might promote what they love to a broader audience. Yesterday’s amazing victory in the cricket world cup has probably brought cricket to a wider audience in this country—to many people who would not necessarily have given it the time of day on Saturday, but are newly enthused because they now understand what other people were on about. I think that is the kind of transformation of interest and attention that he is trying to achieve for Northern Ireland motorsport, if I understood him correctly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the world rally championship. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to him for being assiduous on this matter. It is not the first time that he has mentioned this topic to me; his constituents and others in the sector in Northern Ireland should know that he has discussed this with me on numerous occasions. To be fair, he is not the only Democratic Unionist party MP to have done so, but he has been one of the leading lights.

It is clear that an enormous amount of thought has gone into the report. There is an enormous amount of opportunity here as well. What comes across most strongly from the report is the kind of commercial and cultural opportunity that could be grasped. The hon. Gentleman will have hugely endeared himself to the Treasury, because he started off by saying that he was not asking for money, and that is a guaranteed way to get the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others on the Treasury Bench. Kudos to him for having understood that, and having grabbed our attention immediately. What he is asking for is capacity building; that is the phrase he used. He is asking for support for the principle, and for strategies for developing ideas. He has got off to a tremendous start, because as I noticed and as he rightly points out, many Departments of the Northern Ireland civil service were involved in producing the report. He has clearly managed to get them engaged, which will be vital to future developments.

My Department and the Northern Ireland Departments will want to remain engaged in the development of any thinking on this issue, because if the opportunities can be developed and grasped, from that will come business cases and investment opportunities—perhaps private sector, instead of public sector, investment opportunities. If we can harness the energy, expertise, and volunteer and commercial involvement that the report makes it manifestly clear are already there, commercial opportunities could very well blossom and develop. I think that is the point that the hon. Gentleman is aiming at.

In summary, we have here an incredibly promising report that shows what might be in Northern Ireland. It shows that we have a very high base and a very high starting point of passion, understanding and involvement, and an opportunity to go further. This could be an opportunity further to expand this part of Northern Ireland’s economy and its skills base. As the hon. Gentleman has asked, I am very happy to be part of encouraging the Northern Ireland civil service Departments to remain involved. They are already involved, and I am sure that he will enthuse them still further. I certainly would not want to do anything to undermine that or slow it down. And he certainly has my interest as well.

I would be very happy to encourage him, as these ideas develop, and to provide him with backing in any way that we can, particularly as he started off by saying that he did not need cash, although he does need broader kinds of support. We will see what comes out of this, once those business cases come about and firmer ideas are developed. There may then be further conversations to be had, but in the meantime, this is an excellent start in an incredibly promising area in which Northern Ireland already shines very brightly.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.