Business

Casement Park and the lost millions

Not having a new Casement Park built hast cost the city as a whole and west Belfast in particular millions of pounds of revenue. Picture by Mal McCann.

THESE days, anybody that’s reasonably comfortable with smartphones is also likely to be on WhatsApp.

I am and I’m a member of a number of active conversations with friends, family, teammates, former teammates, parents, coaches etc. Some of them are informative and purely functional, others can be hilariously funny though a bit like more open social media platforms such as Facebook, sometimes you have to sift through a fair bit of dross before you find a nugget.

A number of my GAA related groups have focussed on Casement Park in recent days. Photos have emerged of its current state and they are shocking to see. The once-excellent playing surface is now over-grown with weeds. If it wasn’t for the big stand beside it, it would be hard to guess that this was once a hurling and football pitch.

Much has already been written about Casement on both the news and sports pages of the Irish News so I don’t want to go over old ground especially in a business column. Having said that, I think are a few points worth making, which are economic and business related. The other issue I try to avoid in this column is politics, but if I am going to talk about Casement, I have to talk about politics too. Here goes.

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The city of Belfast needs to get Casement built. We have two decent stadiums here, at Windsor and the Kingspan but they are relatively small and while they both generate good revenues for the city and host great events, the Frampton fight at Windsor being a good example, they simply can’t have the impact of a full Casement Park. Not having Casement built over these last years means the city as a whole and west Belfast in particular has missed out on millions of pounds of revenue. That’s a pity, but it is pointless dwelling on that, what we need to do is try and get it built as soon as possible.

The end of September, one month from now is an important time for the project. It’s important because that is the deadline for all of the statutory consultees to submit their responses to the planning application. All major planning applications can have a complex range of issues to deal with: access to light, roads and transport issues, sewage and water issues, historic buildings, animal habitats and many more. While the Casement application is being assessed by officials in the Department for Infrastructure, they are dependent on a range of agencies and other departments to provide advice and guidance on various parts of the application. Coordinating all of that isn’t straightforward but the end is in sight. When all of those responses are submitted, the officials should, in theory, be able to write-up their recommendation on the application. I hope (and assume) it will be to approve it. With a fair wind, that could be a month later, though I may be being a bit optimistic with that timeframe. Certainly, it’s not unreasonable to think that the application will have been assessed and reported on before Christmas. That’s Christmas this year, I mean.

MCE managing director Paul McErlean

What happens after that though is where things get political. Some readers may be aware of what’s been called the Buick case. This was the legal case taken to stop the award of a planning permission for an incinerator in Mallusk. The outcome of Buick stated that the lead civil servant who made the decision to pass the incinerator application wasn’t entitled to do so because that type of decision would normally be one made by a Minister. This case went to the Court of Appeal and its judgement upheld the original decision. It is therefore reasonably clear that the Court of Appeal judgment limits the power of civil servants to take decisions far beyond major planning applications, though the Attorney General has helpfully asked a set of questions of the Court so that greater clarity can be provided. The answers to those questions, which we are told will be due in ‘the autumn’, may be helpful to Casement as they may give scope for some decision-making by civil servants, whereas at the moment there appears to be none. Of course, all would be fine if we could get the Executive re-established but there appears to be zero chance of that any time soon. And there also appears to be little appetite for the other option, the implementation of direct rule.

The Casement Park site in Andersonstown, west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

I’m told however that there are a number of options short of direct rule, which include allowing decisions to be taken and then retrospectively approving them through Section 80 of the Northern Ireland Act, or simply passing a piece of legislation explicitly empowering the Civil Service to take decisions subject to the guidance of the Secretary of State. Neither of these alternatives are ideal but either are preferable to a situation where no decisions at all can be taken, including some clearly important and urgent ones such as Casement. Our very capable Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, is a big lover of sport. Perhaps in the coming weeks while the formal parts of the Casement application get concluded, she and her team can find a viable mechanism to allow a decision on this crucial piece of economic and sports infrastructure to get made. I hope so.

And please indulge a final word of thanks to three men who have done much within Antrim GAA over the last three years to create a vastly improved platform for future success on and off the field. Their work on Casement has been critical up to this point also. Collie Donnelly, Terry Reilly and Pol MacCana, all senior leaders in their respective businesses and retiring Chairman, cice chairman and treasurer of the Antrim County Board have left Antrim GAA in far better shape than when they first took office, though there is much work still to be done. Running successful businesses and doing the voluntary work of a senior office bearer in a county is no mean feat. I’ve seen it first hand working with all three men over the last couple of years, they have done a brilliant job and deserve the thanks of anybody interested in GAA and sport in general in Belfast and beyond.

:: Paul McErlean (paul@mcepublicrelations.com) is managing director of MCE Public Relations Ltd

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