Sunday motorcycle racing at the North West 200 would disproportionately curtail the rights of churchgoers who live along the course, Jim Allister has said.
But none of Stormont’s 107 other MLAs supported the TUV leader’s call to amend a bill going through Stormont which will increase the chances of Sunday road racing.
Last Monday, Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy introduced legislation which would give more flexibility to organisers of road races to move the event to another day in the event of inclement weather, something which has blighted the NW200 in recent years.
The bill is proceeding by ‘accelerated passage’, an urgent mechanism meaning that it will receive less scrutiny from the Assembly.
Mr Kennedy said he regretted that but argued that it was necessary in order to have the legislation in place for next year’s road racing season.
Mr Allister, who stressed that he was “wholly supportive” of the NW200 and was a regular spectator at the event, opposed that and also opposed the wording of the bill.
The North Antrim MLA stressed that his objection was not of a “never on a Sunday” nature but out of concern for the religious freedom of practising Christians who either live along, or attend one of the four churches on the route.
He said: “Under the bill, we are to see a provision introduced whereby, on contingency days, for the first time, we may well see Sunday racing on the public roads in the north-west and elsewhere.”
He said churches on the route were never consulted, adding: “Indeed, those churches learned of the legislation only when this MLA advised them of it.”
Mr Kennedy said his officials had contacted the Belfast headquarters of major faiths, adding that of almost 900 consultation responses, just six per cent opposed Sunday racing.
The UUP minister added that “it is such a straightforward bill” that it should move swiftly through the Assembly.
And elsewhere around the chamber, the bill received cross-party support.
Jimmy Spratt, the DUP chairman of the committee which scrutinises Mr Kennedy’s department, agreed that the rights of churchgoers were important but said there was “no evidence” the NW200 organisers planned Sunday racing.
He said there was a “greater possibility” of Sunday racing if the legislation went through but added of the bill: “It is good for the economy, good for sport in Northern Ireland and good for tourism.”
DUP MLA Gordon Dunne said that NW200 organiser Mervyn Whyte had told him Sunday racing would be a “last resort”.
SDLP MLA John Dallat backed the bill, pointing to the hundreds of bikers who came to his constituency for the NW200 “carrying well-filled wallets”.