Solicitor: 'An affront to every child in the country who plays sport'

The Magherafelt solicitor spearheading legal action against the NI Executive’s ban on children’s outdoor sports, has slammed a response from the Executive’s solicitors describing it as “an affront to every child in the country who plays sport”.

Wednesday, 2nd December 2020, 9:43 am
Updated Wednesday, 2nd December 2020, 9:46 am
Challenge to ban on outdoor sports for children.

The Executive had indicated it would formally respond to the legal challenge against the restriction by Tuesday of this week.

But in a message to Mr Atherton, the Executive’s solicitors asked for “a little more time” for their client to gather the information required for the response.

Mr Atherton said: “This so called response from the Executive’s Solicitors, received at the 11th hour, is an affront to every child in the country who plays sport and who will once again suffer this weekend.

“It represents a blatantly cynical and quite frankly disgraceful manipulation of the legal process, at the expense of our children. This conduct will not deter me from seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Mr Atherton has welcomed support from eminent physician and epidemiologist Professor Gabriel Scally, who publicly challenged in the Press the legitimacy and value of the restrictions on outdoor sports.

Mr Atherton has drawn Professor Scally’s views to the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma and Patrick Nelson, chief executive officer of Irish Football Association, and asked what steps they planned to take to lobby the Executive for the immediate resumption of outdoor sports. Last week the Executive overshot the notice deadline but confirmed it would respond by Tuesday, December 1.

Mr Atherton said: “In March of this year, the lives of our children were turned upside down. The cruel and bitter irony is, however, that it is not the Covid-19 virus that is harming our children, it is society’s response to the pandemic that is damaging the physical and mental health of the youngest and most vulnerable members of our community.

“The Executive’s failure to respond meaningfully thus far has inhibited my ability to lodge proceedings in the High Court as it will not countenance making an order against the Executive in the absence of any substantive response from them, particularly in circumstances where they have indicated a date of reply. This is a cynical and deliberate attempt to frustrate due process and will result in children being unable to play sport outside in any context this weekend.”

Mr Atherton said that when the correspondence arrives, its adequacy would be considered and, unless the Executive relent and permit a swift return to play, he would move immediately to enforce the rights of children and give them a voice.

“Thus far, no one has been prepared to protect them,” he continued. “I am giving a commitment to lay all experiences shared with me before the Executive and if need be the High Court, to ensure children and their families have a voice.

“It is incumbent on any society and all decision makers to ensure children are listened to and their concerns appropriately considered and addressed. The groundswell of support from the public from right across the country and beyond is overwhelming.

“In response to some negative commentary, I wish to advise I am pursuing this without payment. I am a parent myself and if I can do something which can only benefit children and young people by giving them a voice, that is more than payment in my eyes.”

He called on parents, clubs and young people to share their experiences, all of which will be included in the pending legal challenge.

If you wish to share your story of impact from the continued prohibition on children’s outdoor sport, please contact Stephen Atherton on [email protected]

Mr Atherton’s move has attracted widespread support in sporting circles.

Maghera’s Kenny Shiels, manager of the Northern Ireland women’s team offered his support as has Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton. Mr Shiels said in a Facebook post: “The NI Executive see the children as easy targets, when in fact they are emotionally ripped apart.”

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