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Ireland acts to put top sports on free TV

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The Irish government has introduced legislation to ensure that the country's main sports events are covered on free-to-air television.

It will mean the country's national broadcasters, Granada's TV3 and RTE, could force the Irish football authorities to hand over the rights to Ireland internationals even if sky TV put in a bigger bid.

The proposal will permit broadcasters to go to court 28 days before a designated fixture to obtain permission to show the event if no agreement proves possible with the event's organisers.

Announcing the move in Dublin, the communications minister, Dermot Ahern, said he hoped the law would be in place in time for Ireland's European Championships qualifying tie against Albania in June.

However, the move is likely to anger the Football Association of Ireland, which was has long complained about lack of funds and which came under fire from Manchester United's Roy Keane for scrimping on travel and training arrangements.

Legislation to protect big events was set in train last year after the FAI controversially signed a deal with sky for live coverage of home soccer internationals, prompting widespread protests from soccer fans and senior government figures.

In response, the Irish government drew up a list of major sporting events that would be protected from exile to pay TV including all Irish fixtures in the European and World Cups and rugby's Six Nations and World Cup competitions. The Irish government list was ratified by the European Union last month.

Mr Ahern said the Irish sporting public had long recognised certain major sporting events as "being of such particular importance that they should be carried on free television".

"Last July we saw how at least some of those events can be removed and placed on subscription or pay-per-view channels. At the time I disagreed with that move and asked for a change of heart from those responsible," he said.

The minister also said that the proposed law would, in the case of soccer internationals, have the effect of returning the games to free TV where they could be enjoyed by the young and elderly in particular.

"I am trying to strike a balance here between the competing interests of the event organiser, who wants a fair and market return for their sport, and the qualifying broadcaster, as laid down under the EU directive," Mr Ahern said.

The move will come as a blow to sky, which could also face losing its exclusive rights to live Premier League football if a European investigation forces the league to split the games between pay TV and free-to-air broadcasters.

The UK already has a list of events that are protected for free-to-air television but it is less extensive than the Irish proposals and includes big one-off events such as the FA Cup Final and World Cup matches involving the home nations.

Media Guardian