By Kyle White Belfast Newsletter.
Friday’s divisive statement from motorcycling’s governing body in the Republic of Ireland was like throwing a hand grenade into a chicken coop.
Sean Bissett, President of Motorcycling Ireland, launched a scathing attack on clubs within the Motorcycling Union of Ireland (Ulster Centre) that are still intent on pressing ahead with plans to run race meetings later this year, amidst continuing uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic.
All Irish national road races planned in the south in 2020 have been cancelled and Bissett said he was ‘alarmed and annoyed’ that events including the Tandragee 100 and Cookstown meetings have not followed suit.
In March, the Ulster Grand Prix was cancelled as a result of the debt crisis that threatens the very future of the legendary Dundrod race.
However, the first Irish road race in Northern Ireland cancelled directly because of the Covid-19 outbreak was July’s Armoy ‘Race of Legends’ meeting in Co Antrim, which was followed by the North West 200 earlier this month.
The Tandragee 100 remains postponed indefinitely, with no alternative dates suggested by the North Armagh Club, while the organisers of the Cookstown 100 – postponed from April – have been most vociferous in their declarations that the race will go ahead from September 11-12, with ‘spectator restrictions in place’ around the 2.1-mile Orritor course in Co Tyrone.
It seems the Cookstown club’s latest announcement – highlighting plans to run the race with up to 2,000 spectators admitted into the course with exclusive wristbands obtained online – prompted Friday’s barbed statement from Bissett.
A stalwart of Irish motorcycling in the southern body, he suggested such efforts were painting the sport in a bad light when ‘the governments of Ireland are still trying to keep this epidemic under control’.
He also added that the Ulster Centre does not have the ‘authority or support’ of the Motor Cycle Union of Ireland to promote the events.
For clarity, the MCUI (UC) does not require the approval of the Southern Centre to run any events under its jurisdiction.
Nonetheless, there is growing confusion over the Ulster Centre’s stance on the remainder of the 2020 Ulster Superbike and road racing season.
The sport’s governing body here has been silent since issuing a statement on its website in March, announcing that all Ulster Centre events had been suspended indefinitely.
Following Motorcycling Ireland’s strongly-worded condemnation on Friday, the views of the Directors of the MCUI (UC) on whether or not the rest of the season should be cancelled were sought.
The majority were in favour of writing off the rest of 2020 and starting anew next year.
A statement to that effect was prepared, which I was told would be issued on Saturday morning. However, the Ulster Centre’s Secretary and General Press Officer, David McAllister, said he was requested to hold the statement back.
A further statement prepared by Ulster Centre chairman John McClure outlined his views on the current situation, which was circulated amongst the UC Directors.
In that statement, Mr McClure advised that it was ‘too early to make any decision on any event’. He added that a framework document released by Sport NI on Friday providing guidance on a resumption of sport in Northern Ireland was being ‘reviewed for guidance and compliance’.
In Sport NI’s document, motorcycle racing is included in the non-contact sports category and falls within Step 5 of the guidance, which is in line with the NI Executive’s Five-Step Plan for easing lockdown.
At present, sports organisations are currently planning how to implement Step 1 of Sport NI’s Framework advice.
When sport progresses through the various stages of the guidance and eventually reaches Step 5 – widely anticipated to be in late autumn – spectators would ‘be able to attend live events on a restricted basis’, but also in line with the Public Health Agency’s guidelines at the time.
Any conditions in place relating to the size of public gatherings in Northern Ireland will also apply in Step 5. Currently, groups of up to six people who do not share a household are permitted to meet outside.
Taking everything into account, the prospect of any motorcycle racing taking place this season with spectators in attendance seems very unlikely.
Nevertheless, fans are looking for clarity and leadership from those tasked with running the sport in Northern Ireland.
So far, the silence of the MCUI (UC) is deafening.