As the Northern Ireland Executive works towards setting a budget there will undoubtedly be many conflicting voices. As Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I will be in there arguing the case for culture, arts and leisure. However there will also be those who say that if there are cuts to be made then areas such as health and education should take priority over sport and arts. Some will even suggest that sport and arts are simply entertainment and scarcely deserving of public support at all.
However that is a very superficial view of the situation because sport and arts are much more than entertainment. They provide enjoyment and they enhance our quality of life but they do much more than that.
Earlier this year I published a new sports strategy for Northern Ireland and it set out a vision based around participation, places and performance - getting more people involved in sport, providing the right facilities for posrt, and helping athletes to achieve their very best. The strategy also highlighted the contribution that sport makes to various aspects of life.
It contributes to improving the health of society, especially in tackling the problem of obesity and the illnesses associated with obesity. Young people today spend more time than ever indoors, often sitting in front of a computer or a television, and this can lead to inactivity and obesity, which is a serious health problem in itself but also causes other problems. Tackling obesity must be a priority.
We spend a lot of money in the Health Service addressing the results of ill health but how much better it is to prevent ill health by promoting a healthy lifestyle and sport has an important role to play in health promotion. Prevention is better than cure.
Sport also contruibutes to education. There is good evidence that young people who engage in sport and other healthy activities tend to perform better in school. Competitive sport also enables young people to learn social skills and team games teach young people about working as part of a team. We should not set sport and arts against health and education because they can contribute to health and education.
Yes, every department will face pressures but if we were to ring-fence every single penny in the education and health budgets, as some politicians are demanding, the cuts in sport and arts would be especially severe. However the fact is that you could wipe out the DCAL budget entirely, close all our libraries and museums and stop funding sport and arts, and it would hardly do anything to meet the demands of health and education.
A lot of money has been invested in our sports infrastructure but during the years of the Troubles there was a prolonged period of underinvestment. Now we are making up for that underinvestment and catching up on others.
Since my appointment to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in July last year I have visited many sports facilities and I have seen the imrpovements that are taking place but there is still a long way to go. And here I am thinking not only of the planned stadium development at Windsor Park, Ravenhill and Casement Park, but of such things as the provision of more 3-G pitches in local community facilities.
Some time ago I visited a gymnastics club in Bangor and was pleased to hear that they had just had an influx of young people. The reason was that a young gymnastics team had won Britain's Got Talent! The success of the Northern Ireland team in the Commonwealth Games has highlighted the sporting talent we have in this country and the Olympics in 2012 will also increase the number of young folk wanting to play sport.
If we are to avail of those opportunities and provide the facilities for our young people, then we need to invest in sport.