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Confusion as First Minister contradicts order banning fans from top-level events

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Spectators between Ulster and Benetton
600 spectators were able to attend Ulster’s Pro14 season opener at Kingspan earlier in October

A tweet from First Minister Arlene Foster has created confusion around whether supporters can attend elite sports events in Northern Ireland.

A letter issued to sporting bodies by Minister for Communities Carál Ní Chuilín on Friday evening stated that fans were not permitted to attend under the new Covid-19 regulations.

However, the First Minister said later on Friday that this was not the case.

“The regulations do not ban fans from stadiums,” she tweeted.

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

Ulster Rugby, the GAA and the Northern Ireland Football League had hoped that limited numbers of fans could attend their matches despite the new Covid-19 restrictions that came into effect in Northern Ireland at 18:00 on Friday. They are due to last for four weeks.

The Executive announcement came just over an hour before the first match of the new Irish Premiership season.

Supporters had already arrived at the stadium for the Coleraine-Ballymena United match and Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry said the club decided to let the fans remain in the Ballycastle Road venue for the game on health and safety grounds.

Minister for Communities Carál Ní Chuilín MLA revealed the news about supporters in a letter to leading sports bodies on Friday evening.

She said it is “necessary to stop spectators from attending sporting events and align the sector with the health regulations restricting the number of people permitted to gather for a common purpose, that figure is 15.”

Donegal's Eoghan Ban Gallagher battles with Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly in last year's Ulster SFC contest
Donegal and Tyrone face each other in Ballybofey in the National League on Sunday

She continued: “This decision is in line with the views of the chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor, who have indicated that it would be unwise for large gatherings to take place at this time.

“While I appreciate all the efforts that Governing Bodies and clubs have made to provide safe environments at recent fixtures, I do not think that given the challenges we all face that it is appropriate for those arrangements to continue.”

The decision on supporters will impact Ulster Rugby’s Pro14 season, which started earlier this month, and the GAA’s inter-county season, which is due to recommence with the National League on Saturday.

As well as impacting matches in the Irish Premiership, the Executive’s decision would also mean that supporters cannot attend Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 play-off final against Slovakia at Windsor Park on 12 November.

Six hundred supporters attended NI’s Nations League defeat by Austria on Sunday, while the same number of fans were at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium for Ulster’s Pro14 season opener a fortnight ago.

A number of supporters were also in attendance at GAA club championship matches between July and September.

In response to the announcement, NIFL, the body which manages Irish League football, said: “The NIFL board convened an urgent meeting immediately after receipt of the letter and will make a full statement later this evening.”

Irish Premiership clubs including Glenavon and Larne tweeted late on Friday evening that their matches on Saturday will be able to go ahead with supporters in attendance.

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