Antrim Gaels making their voices heard as planning decision nears on Casement Park proposal
TYRONE stars Mattie and Richard Donnelly were making their way to the sideline terrace at Healy Park last Sunday when a voice piped up from the crowd: “Lads, would yiz sign this for Casement?”
“Aye, no problem,” says Red Hand Allstar Mattie and the Trillick clubmen took turns to pen their messages of support for the rebuilding of Casement Park as the home of Ulster GAA.
Antrim panellist Patrick Finnegan and his St Brigid’s GAC clubmate Michael Cummings were the young Gaels who approached the Donnelly brothers and they were part of an enthusiastic group who canvassed fans from Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Monaghan during last weekend’s Ulster club championship semi-final double header in Omagh.
Casement closed its doors in 2013 and the initial proposals for the redevelopment of the west Belfast stadium were turned down in 2014. The stadium has been lying idle ever since and Patrick and Michael are determined to gather the support essential for it to be redeveloped.
“We’re talking to people and asking them why they’d like to see Casement Park built,” said Patrick.
“We have a list of some of the benefits that Casement would bring and the reasons why it should be built.
“We want to get the views of everyone here and we want to know if they think Ulster GAA should have a provincial stadium in Belfast.”
He added: “We’ve got some great reaction.
“We got Richie and Mattie Donnelly and obviously they’re big county men with Tyrone and one of the reasons they put down was to play in a packed out Casement Park.
“Cork have their stadium, Windsor Park and the Kingspan Stadium have been renewed and it’s about time that Casement was redeveloped.”
For decades, Antrim’s best club and county players enjoyed the opportunity to run out in front of large crowds at Casement, but since its closure inter-county games have been hosted by clubs around the county. Michael says the current situation has become “embarrassing”.
“As Antrim men we would love to have a ground that we could aspire to play on both with the club and then potentially with the county if we could get that far,” he said.
“I would go to most of the Antrim games and it almost feels embarrassing when you’re welcoming opposing counties to a club ground. They are good pitches; good club grounds but they’re not county grounds.”
Patrick added: “Corrigan Park is a great pitch but there is no stand… People aren’t attracted to go to the games because it’s not in a big stadium.
“People need to make their voice heard and explain why Casement should be built. People should come and speak out; it’s all about getting that feedback from people.”
SINCE the gates of Casement Park closed in 2013, Antrim’s hurlers have played League games at Corrigan Park, Ballycastle and in Cushendall while the footballers have been shunted around Corrigan Park, Creggan, Aghogill, St Paul’s and Ballycastle.
The lack of a permanent home has done nothing for Antrim’s results. The footballers haven’t won a Championship game since the 2015 win over Laois and will battle for a way out of Division Four next year.
Meanwhile, the Antrim hurlers were relegated to Division 2A of the NHL last year and needed a relegation play-off to retain their place in the Joe McDonagh Cup, the second tier championship competition.
The picture isn’t any brighter at club level where the Antrim senior football champions have won just one game in the Ulster Championship since St Gall’s won the All-Ireland title in 2009. In the hurling championship, three of the last four provincial titles had been won by the Derry champions Slaughtneil (twice) and Down’s Portaferry before Cushendall won the title this year and the Ruairi Og club is not expected to make an impression at national level next year.
Amid the gloom and doom, the Gaels for Casement group is “very optimistic” that a new proposal for Casement Park will be passed by Northern Ireland Planning next month and spokesman Harry Connolly says the new stadium will be the “jolt in the arm” the county needs.
“We feel that the current stadium that’s in planning offers everything that is required to be the jolt in the arm for the GAA in Belfast and Antrim and it would give us a provincial home as well,” he said.
“Let’s get Casement Park back to the glory days where you have Nipper Quinn finals and reserve finals as well as National League and Championship games.
“Let’s get Casement back to a place where young Gaels, from fundamentals right through to U21 at every ability level get the opportunity to play. No kid should miss out on the opportunity to experience the amazing buzz and atmosphere and play on the hallowed turf.
“As we approach 2019, we want a decision made as quickly as we can and we want to get on with the business of Casement Park being about the GAA and a home for Gaels as opposed to the controversy that has surrounded it in recent years.
Connolly said all Antrim Gaels – at whatever level – should have the opportunity to perform on the “hallowed turf” of the Andersonstown Road venue.
“Gaels for Casement are very optimistic and hopeful that the current plan will be approved,” said the St John’s clubman.
“We feel very strongly that it offers Gaels in Belfast, Antrim and beyond a stadium that we can all be proud of and that Antrim Gaels can call home.
“There is a deep frustration across the county and beyond that it seems to be dragging on and our message to local Gaels is to remain steadfast and hang in because the only show in town has to be the redeveloped Casement Park that is proposed.
“We see the success of Windsor and Ravenhill and for us it’s: Why should Gaels in Belfast, Antrim and beyond accept anything less than a first class facility that will be a catalyst for helping to grow and develop games in the city?
“If you speak to anyone the message is: ‘Get on with it, let’s get it built’.
“The fact that it has dragged on so long has made Gaels annoyed, especially when you see the success of other stadiums. The solution to that is for them to remain steadfast and for the planners to make the decision they need to make and for us to get on with the building work.
“Casement Park will be the catalyst for a whole new generation of Gaels in every format and facet.”
WITH a decision on the plans for Casement Park expected before Christmas, there is a feeling of “now or never” among Ulster Gaels.
Plans for a 38,000-seater stadium to replace the dilapidated existing west Belfast were rejected in 2014 but a new blueprint for a scaled down version gained the approval of the Safety Technical Group in October and there is optimism that planning approval will be granted this time around.
If it is, then the next stage, the final decision, will rest with the North’s politicians and the Ulster GAA Council has made a sustained effort to gather evidence in support for the project.
“What we’ve found on the streets is there is a lot of support for the project,” explained one active supporter.
“It’s a case of trying to drum that home and get the letters in to show people that the public is behind the project.
“There is a perception that the residents of west Belfast aren’t behind the stadium but that isn’t what we’ve found at all. The new redevelopment plans went out for consultation in 2016 and over 90 per cent of 5,000 people who were surveyed came back saying they were in favour of it.
“The vast majority of people in west Belfast are behind the project, it’s just a case of trying to show that because the small minority of people that are physically adjacent to the proposed stadium are very well organised and against it.”
The longer the impasse remains the more the Casement status quo becomes the norm and the more difficult it becomes to transform what is now a derelict eyesore into what it could be: A home for Gaelic Games in Ulster.
The plans submitted being considered for approval are for a 34,000-seater stadium. Local residents have called for a 20-25,000-seater alternative which would be considerably below the capacity required to host an Ulster final or a major All-Ireland series fixture.
“Antrim Gaels are facing playing the rest of their careers without having a home stadium so they are really behind the project,” claimed a Casement activist.
“There are suggestions that money should be put into Clones and people don’t realise that the money doesn’t exist for Clones, the money is coming from the NI Executive so it has to be the North. If it doesn’t happen now, and this is starting to hit home, it will probably never happen.
“Recently I’ve seen that resonate with Antrim Gaels and they are realising that if this is going to go ahead, it has to go ahead in the next 12 months. If that doesn’t happen it’s hard to see it happening.
“If it doesn’t go ahead at this point, I think there is that fear that it might never happen.”
Gaels For Casement Statement
On Tuesday 13th November an article by Cahair O’ Kane featured in the Irish News. His commentary that Antrim do not need the currently proposed redevelopment ignores the fact that a provincial stadium at Casement is a historic gamechanger for our County and places us at the heart of Gaelic Games in our Province.
The proposal is one for Gaelic games across Ulster and ensures Ireland’s second city, Belfast, will play host to a modern, provincial stadium. After the redevelopments of Kingspan and Windsor Park in recent years, why should the Gaels of Ulster and Antrim be the only sportspeople to fall short of the stated aims of the Regional Stadium Development Programme?
The newly redeveloped Casement Park will act as a catalyst for the revitalisation of Antrim GAA across all codes and finally provide a home for the GAA in Ulster that schools, clubs and counties can be proud of, increasing attendances at games and driving participation at a grassroots level.
When realised, Casement Park will make a visible and tangible contribution to community; sporting, social and economic life fostering a positive and modern image of West Belfast and the GAA.
Yes, there are challenges but this is a rare and unprecedented opportunity to create a home for the GAA in our city that will significantly support the on-going regeneration of West Belfast.
The stadium has been reduced in scale, size and capacity with the Safety Technical Group having endorsed the safety procedures and 91 per cent of respondents supporting the project when the GAA went out to consultation on its design.
It is more important than ever for us to show support at this crucial time to deliver this hugely significant opportunity for Antrim and Ulster.
If we don’t, Antrim GAA and its long standing ambitions for success will miss out for generations to come.
We encourage all Gaels to respond to the planning process and deliver what we had 40 years ago, a provincial stadium with Antrim at the heart of Ulster GAA.
Sean Mc Guinness