The next two weeks represent a ‘do or die’ moment for Northern Ireland’s attempt to land a World Rally Championship qualifier for next season according to Westminster’s leading WRC lobbyist Ian Paisley.
North Antrim MP Paisley is also the independent chairman of Northern Ireland’s Motorsport Taskforce – a position which has afforded him a clear picture of the benefits a WRC calendar slot would bring to his constituents and the wider Northern Ireland population.
Paisley spoke in the House of Commons in June, calling for support for Northern Ireland’s attempt to bring Britain’s world championship round across the Irish Sea from Deeside to Belfast.
With the FIA and WRC Promoter finalizing 2021 calendar discussions, Paisley told DirtFish the time for pontificating had to stop.
“It’s do or die now,” he said.
“I’ve had really good conversations with [Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)] Oliver Dowden and his office and I know they’re exploring every opportunity to see how they can part-fund WRC in 2021 in Northern Ireland and to assist as a special project.
“This would allow for a refresh of the WRC in the UK. As you know it’s run in Wales for a long time now and it’s getting a little tired and we’re looking to try another location.
“The Northern Ireland Executive couldn’t undertake this on its own – it wouldn’t have sufficient resources – so DCMS and the Northern Ireland office coming together with the Northern Ireland Executive would be a way of funding it.
“We’re at a crucial point of making sure it actually happens. Everybody is aware of the deadline here: it’s the end of September or the beginning of October. The Northern Ireland secretary of state (Brandon Lewis) is on the record saying this should be done, so it’s time to say: ‘Right, come on let’s make this happen, let’s stop the talk now’.
“This would be a classic example of a partnership with Westminster departments and the Northern Ireland Executive working together,” Paisley added.
“But if this isn’t done in the next 14 days there will just be recriminations and a huge feeling of lost opportunity.
“In the grand scheme of things it [the investment] is nothing in comparison with what this would bring to the economy. I’m already on the record [in Westminster] to say the government needs to get its finger out and make this happen.”
Currently, Britain is out of contract with WRC Promoter for next season. It does have a single year remaining on a three-year deal with Wales, but a pause clause in that contract could be triggered to allow the event to move to Belfast.
WRC Promoter (WRCP) is known to be keen to see the event move to Belfast, with its former managing director Oliver Ciesla talking regularly of the need to spread the WRC word further afield from north and mid-Wales.
The fact that a Northern Ireland event would offer a more robust financial model – Cardiff government funding has been on the slide for the last 10 years and Welsh investment would be less than half what’s required to actually run Rally GB – makes Belfast even more attractive to WRCP.
Paisley is convinced the event, which would be known as Rally Northern Ireland, would be a perfect fit.
“The WRC is Formula 1 for blue-collar [workers]. It brings blue-collar [workers] together and it happens on our own streets. Northern Ireland was built for this and the roads we have are built for this.
“The enthusiasm is there, so many people travel to the WRC rounds from Northern Ireland, it would be fantastic to have this in our own backyard.
“If we don’t do this, disappointed just wouldn’t capture it. This is one of those things that are just so blindingly obvious that it has to be done and everything is in place. The WRC wants it, Motorsport UK wants it to happen, individual government ministers appear to be on the same page.
“This is a can-do now, so let’s get it done and not let the bureaucracy get in the way. I understand that Westminster and the Northern Ireland Executive exists in a bubble and that’s the way these things work, but when you step outside of that bubble and see the rubber touch the road, you can really make these things happen.
“Like I said, it’s do or die.”