New legislation that will protect church services from disruption along the route of the North West 200 motorcycle race has been welcomed at the Assembly.
A bill was being rushed through the Assembly in the wake of the North West 200 (NW200) and other motorsport events being washed out last year.
The aim was to allow all organisers some flexibility to move races to another date if the weather was poor – in time for next year’s NW200.
Churches along the NW200 route were concerned they could be badly disrupted if such a race was moved to a Sunday.
Last week, however, the Assembly approved an amendment by TUV leader Jim Allister which means that Sunday racing on the NW200 route, should it happen, must take place between 1.30pm and 6pm.
Transport Minister Danny Kennedy said: “The issue addressed by the Road Races (Amendment) Bill was never about Sunday racing – it was about providing a degree of flexibility aimed at ensuring that not just the flagship events like the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix have a degree of protection [from poor weather conditions]. The bill affords the same protection to all other road racing events in Northern Ireland.”
Mervyn Whyte MBE, race director for the North West 200, has consistently made it clear that he would not seek to use a Sunday as a contingency day – except in otherwise unavoidable circumstances.
“The bill now ensures that should a Sunday contingency day be requested, morning racing cannot take place at the North West 200 circuit,” he said.
Alan Drysdale, chair of the 2&4 Wheel Motorsport Steering Group Ltd, welcomed the “much needed flexibility” that will now be within the Road Closure legislation to try and avoid a recurrence of the abandonment of events due to adverse weather, as happened to the Ulster Grand Prix in 2008, the North West 200 in 2011 and both the North West 200 and the Dundrod 150 earlier this year.
Mr Allister said: “I welcome the fact that after arguing so passionately against the need for statutory protection for church service times last week the DUP and others were prepared to back specific protection for churches on the route of the NW 200 if a contingency day happens to be on a Sunday.”
He added: “In fact, if I hadn’t contacted the churches on the route of the NW200 they wouldn’t even have known about it.”
A clergyman whose church is on the route of the North West 200 said last night he was disappointed that new legislation did not go far enough.
Rev Samuel McCollum of Portrush Reformed Presbyterian Church, which is at ‘Church Corner’ on the route, said half a dozen churches had met with Transport Minister Danny Kennedy about their concerns in October.
“We had suggested that none of the contingency days that racing could be moved to would be Sundays,” Rev McCollum said.
“However, the minister declined to support this and there was no support for this kind of view.
“Mr Allister’s amendment safeguards Sundays to some extent, ie, allowing racing between 1.30pm and 6pm at the NW200 route only.
“At least that will make Sunday racing here unattractive to organisers to some extent.”
Meanwhile, NI21 leader Basil McCrea MLA yesterday hit out at the Regional Development Committee for allowing the bill to pass into law “without facing adequate scrutiny from the Assembly”. He said the bill was “untidy law”.