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‘Build Casement' must become more than a hashtag

Planning approval for a new 38,000-seat Casement Park stadium has previously been overturned in the High Court
 

ON Saturday I loaded the car with a couple of kids, one of their friends, and headed for Croke Park for the double header All Ireland quarter final involving what on paper were four of the top teams in Ireland. It promised to be a day to remember. As it happens though the Ulster teams, Tyrone and Donegal lost out to Mayo and Dublin respectively and only in the first match was there a tension or excitement that a close game delivers.

In fact, had Lee Keegan not scored a late point for Mayo, had Tyrone not spurned a couple of very late chances to equalise and had Sean Cavanagh not been red carded, a replay may well have been on the cards, but I’ll come back to that.

There were 82,000 in Croke Park last Saturday, a full house. Another 38,000 were there on Sunday to see what has so far been the game of the year, the hurling semi final between Waterford and Kilkenny. That one did end in a draw and the replay will take place in Thurles, this coming Saturday.

What a boost for Thurles! The drawn game was so exciting there is little doubt that tens of thousands will descend on the town for the replay, thankfully at Semple Stadium in Thurles which has the infrastructure to accommodate that number and is well used to handling big match days. You can be sure that the publicans, hoteliers and retailers of Thurles are rubbing their hands in anticipation at an unexpected day of exceptional trade. Even the local match day entrepreneurs who run ad hoc car parks and sell the ‘last of the headbands’ will be gearing up for Saturday (do those headbands ever run out?). A very conservative estimate would show that Thurles will benefit from a spending injection measured in the hundreds of thousands of euros and more.

Let's say the Tyrone v Mayo game had indeed ended in a draw. The expected crowd for a replay would have been approximately 30,000, maybe a little bit more. The perfect place for such a game is a revamped, brand new, open-for-business Casement Park in west Belfast. We don't even need to consider hypothetical replays. Under the original plans this was to be the year the new Casement was complete and hosting major games.

This year's Ulster Final between Tyrone and Donegal would have been played in Andersonstown, and I am sure that the 33,500 committed and partisan fans who turned up would have been joined by a few thousand extra had the Belfast venue been up and running. I don't know too many neutral GAA fans who decide on a spur of the moment to head to the inaccessible and time consuming venue that is Clones, but Casement with the necessary motorway infrastructure does have the capacity to attract a ‘walk up’ crowd.

The GAA community has over the past month or so begun something of a drum-banging campaign to get the new Casement built. Images of what the iconic ground used to be are typically juxtaposed alongside images of the run down, heartbreaking scene that is Casement 2016, with a plea to #buildCasement.

It's worthy, it's understandable and it does go some way to showing what support the project does have. However, planning processes have to be gone through and as things stand a fresh planning application has yet to be submitted.

I attended some of the community consultation events which the GAA staged as part of the consultation process and there was an overall feeing of goodwill toward the project. Of course there is local opposition to certain aspects of the plan, but hopefully they can be ironed prior to or as part of the planning application.

Next month Boston College Eagles will take on Georgia Tech in a competitive game of US college football in Dublin under the banner the ‘Croke Park classic’. This is no glorified friendly match but a competitive fixture which will be beamed live into American homes from coast to coast. A similar fixture in 2014 attracted a crowd of 55,000, of which 20,000 were overseas visitors. The economic benefit was estimated to be €30 million.

These figures may be subject to a bit of exaggeration, but the value of such an event should not be downplayed. If there is a ‘Croke Park classic’ every two years why not a ‘Casement Classic’ in between and all the economic spin offs?

Driving back from Croke Park on Saturday my youngest son asked, quite sincerely, “when will Casement be built? Why was it closed before it was ready to be built again?”

Unfortunately the saga of Casement has too many twists and turns to allow for a ready answer to those questions. But as we are now in the year when it was mooted to be re-opened, the questions and aspirations are as valid as ever.

If we want to maximise the potential of Casement, and deliver the economic benefits on offer to west Belfast and beyond, then ‘build Casement’ must become more than a hashtag. West Belfast deserves the project to become a reality.

Brendan Mulgrew (brendan.mulgrew@mwadvocate.com) is managing partner at MW Advocate (mwadvocate.com)

Next week: Angela McGowan

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