Not to build Casement Park for Euro 2028 would be unforgivable: NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor

Gerard Lawlor says local football's circuit breaker will be for only two weeks
Gerard Lawlor says local football's circuit breaker will be for only two weeks NIFL chief Gerard Lawlor wants to see serious investment into sport including the Casement Park rebuild and money promised for local football

NORTHERN Ireland Football League [NIFL] chief Gerard Lawlor insists it would be “madness” and “unforgivable” if Casement Park wasn’t rebuilt for Euro 2028 and has urged government to dig deep to create a brighter future for Belfast and local football.

The Department of Communities at Stormont holds the purse strings for the projected rebuild of Casement Park and the sub-regional stadia upgrades for local football.

In 2011, Stormont had ringfenced £62.5m for Casement and £36.2m for local football – but both figures would appear to be sorely out of date and need significantly enhanced to meet the needs of both codes.

Since the return of the Stormont Executive, elements of both sporting constituencies have effectively become adversaries over the amount of extra money it will cost to rebuild Casement Park in time for the Euros, where Northern Ireland could possibly play games.

While Lawlor’s primary role is to lobby government for increased funds for Irish League clubs – otherwise “some of our member clubs will go out of business” – the NIFL chief cannot understand the negativity surrounding the Casement Park rebuild, describing it as “economic suicide” if it was aborted.

“I hear a lot about the outlay of cost, and it is a lot of money but how much would we lose if Casement is not built?” Lawlor warned.

“How much would the economy lose over a 10 or 15-year period? Are we going to continue to play second fiddle to Dublin or British cities like Glasgow, Birmingham and Cardiff who have two or three of these venues?

“Are we going to continue to lose out on major attractions because we can’t look beyond orange and green arguments? We must look beyond that.

“From a football perspective, I welcome Casement Park. It has major opportunities for the football community in Northern Ireland – it’s not all about Gaelic Games.

“It’s going to provide a venue for all sports. It would allow us to bring major clubs to Belfast whereas you currently have to travel to Dublin to watch them.

“There is no doubt the National Football stadium [Windsor Park] will always be the home of football in Northern Ireland. Ravenhill will always be the home of rugby - but we would be mad, and it would be unforgivable, to lose the Euros and lose further opportunities because of pettiness and a real lack of vision.”

Anti-Casement Park chants from a section of Northern Ireland fans were heard loud and clear at their last home game in October – even though their team may never get the chance again to host games at a major tournament.

Once a strong advocate of Casement Park hosting the European Championships, former Linfield manager and influential pundit David Jeffrey has changed his mind and feels the IFA should forget about being a Euro 2028 co-host.

“I’m a retired senior social worker two years now and I’m well aware of the competing priorities that there are,” Jeffrey told Talkback on BBC Radio Ulster on Tuesday.

“We didn’t seem to be getting to a place where I wanted to get to where sport was bringing us together – and then you have the competing priorities of health, education, transport, infrastructure and the economy – I’m thinking, is this really worth it?”

While he was supportive of Casement Park being rebuilt, perhaps on a smaller scale, he felt the discussion had become “toxic”.

Jeffrey also felt that less money should be given over to Casement Park due to northern society’s “competing priorities”.

Alongside the £15m the GAA has committed the Irish government has stumped up £42.8m while the British government is expected to make up the shortfall to complete the west Belfast stadium with a 34,500 capacity.

Lawlor, who says local football needs a major funding increase on the promised £36.2m for sub-regional stadia, envisages massive opportunities for soccer to be played at a new Casement Park.

“We have one unique opportunity to build something special for this city. I’m from the city. I’m proud to be from the city.

“I’m from north Belfast, I’m football orientated and not GAA. But what I see here is the chance to provide a sporting arena. Future generations won’t forgive us if we don’t build it.”

A delegation from the organisers of the Euro 2028 football tournament on site this afternoon for an early inspection of the venue.
The venue in west Belfast is earmarked to host games at the tournament in four years.
But the stadium has yet to be redeveloped.
The deadline to complete the construction is mid-2027.
At this stage, there is not sufficient funding to pay for the redevelopment, which could cost more than £200m.
UEFA delegation site visit to Casement Park A delegation from the organisers of the Euro 2028 football tournament on site on Wednesday afternoon for an early inspection of the venue.