The following is my speech to the Assembly on the legacy of the Paralympic Games
Mr McGimpsey: I support the motion and am grateful to the proposer for bringing it forward at this time, bearing in mind that the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics are still very vivid in our memories. We witnessed that huge and successful spectacle and the part that athletes from Northern Ireland played in those Olympics.
London 2012 was first mooted at the UK Sports Cabinet, some 12 years ago, when I was Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. As part of that bid, Tessa Jowell came forward with the proposal that she wanted to get support from the four home countries to bring the Olympics to London in 2012. We were, to varying degrees, happy to support that. My only query was around what would happen to our lottery money, if we were successful. I got assurances on that. London 2012 could only have gone forward with the four home countries supporting the bid. Indeed, it proved a spectacular success. London proved to be a fabulous venue, and the Olympics and Paralympics proved to be a fabulous success. Huge achievements were made by UK athletes across the board, and huge achievements were made by athletes from Northern Ireland. Clearly, there is a legacy from the Paralympic Games, and it is so important that we seize the moment.
How do we do that? It is about increasing participation in sport among individuals suffering disabilities. In Northern Ireland, 20% of the population have either a long-term illness or a disability, and inclusion in sport is so important for their personal development. Providing that access and community support is so important. Above all, it is about equality. All citizens in Northern Ireland have exactly the same rights. Whether they suffer from a disability or are able-bodied, they have the same rights and should have exactly the same right of access to promote their quality of life.
As for the mechanisms that we can use, we have, as an example, Disability Sports Northern Ireland. That is a key body playing a key role in this area. It requires support and, indeed, is getting support from the Department and Sport Northern Ireland. As has been mentioned, councils will play an increasing role. They need to look at their statutory obligations to ensure access for the athletes that we are talking about. We also have ‘Sport Matters’, a key strategy document coming out of the Department that can, again, drive forward this agenda. There are other opportunities, such as the Special Olympics.
No one in the House would deny the benefits that would come forward for our society and for those individuals through promoting access to sport. It is good for individuals physically and mentally, and it is good for personal development. It is about promoting increased participation, increased understanding, increased demand and, above all, increased access. This is about equality of opportunity. This is about the rights of individuals who have disabilities. They have the same rights as everyone else, and we require support for those individuals.
We can query the target of 6%, bearing in mind that around 20% have suffered disabilities, but we will examine that and see how we get on as we promote that. However, this is clearly something that is in the popular mind and in the popular imagination. We understand as a society that we have a focus here, and this is exactly the right time to be pushing forward.