Ulster GAA calls for urgent action as Casement Park Euro 2028 hopes fade

Funding delay leaves redevelopment of west Belfast stadium losing race against time for major soccer showpiece

Workmen at Casement Park GAA stadium in Belfast
Work on clearing Casement Park commenced, but hopes of its availability for Euro 2028 are fading fast (Liam McBurney/PA)

ULSTER GAA remains fully committed to efforts to host Euro 2028 matches at Casement Park – but has admitted time is running out after a funding decision from the British government was further delayed until after the General Election.

It comes after GAA president Jarlath Burns cast considerable doubt on hopes the redevelopment could be complete in time to open a year before Euro 2028, as required by Uefa.

Casement Park is currently earmarked to host five games at the tournament.

However, while the European soccer body are understood to be open to the possibility of pushing that deadline back with the hope of including the west Belfast stadium in Euro 2028, the pace of the process is hugely problematic.

The Irish News has contacted Uefa for comment.

With time of the essence, Casement’s case has not been helped by the calling of a July 4 election, which ensures no decision on British government funding will be considered until after its completion.

“Whenever an election is called, you enter into what we call purdah, where governments are not allowed to make big donations or big announcements,” said Burns, speaking at the launch of the All-Ireland hurling championship in Clare on Tuesday.

“It’s very handy for the Conservative government that they get out of having to do it. The Gaelic Athletic Association will always be in a very precarious position when we find ourselves depending on the goodwill of the British government.

“It’s never worked out for us before.”

On the back of the Silverbridge man’s comments, Ulster GAA has issued a statement stressing the need for the Department for Communities to progress the tendering process for the construction work.

It further called on the Stormont Executive to convene an urgent meeting to discuss the situation.

“As the world waits for Euro 2024 to kick off this weekend in Germany, the time is quickly approaching for the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to decide if they want to host the third-largest sporting event in the world, in Belfast, in four years’ time,” read the statement.

“The recent comments of Uachtaran CLG, Jarlath Burns, reflects the frustration and dismay regarding the delay in the development of Casement Park relating to both the procurement of a main contractor and the project’s funding package.

“Following our joint letter with the Irish FA to the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, we have had confirmation that details of government funding will not be made available until after the UK parliament elections on July 4.

“To keep this global and transformational opportunity alive, we are now urgently calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to collectively discuss the opportunities that Euro 2028 will create for our society and the reputational, economic and sporting risk of losing this global event.

“We are also calling for the procurement tender documents to be released without further delay to ensure the project development remains within Uefa timelines.

“Working in partnership with the Irish FA we remain fully committed to doing everything we can in the coming weeks to ensure that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity can be delivered for all of society.

“Casement Park will be built, and we will continue to work with all partners who provided commitments within the Regional Stadia Programme and successive Programme for Governments to ensure that the strategic stadia needs of the Gaels of Ulster will be delivered.”

Despite the current situation, the Irish Football Association says it continues to work towards hosting Euro 2028 fixtures at Casement Park.

“We are in constant contact with Uefa and other key stakeholders to ensure this once in a lifetime opportunity for Northern Ireland to co-host one of the biggest sports events in the world is realised,” read an IFA statement.

“It remains a transformative opportunity to bring our communities together through the power of sport.”

It is just over a year since secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris expressed confidence that the redeveloped Casement would be built, saying: “We’ll get the money, don’t you worry”.

However, with Heaton-Harris saying in March that the projected costs of the rebuild could reach as high as £308 million in a worst-case scenario, the messaging has changed somewhat.

Earlier this year, the Irish government committed £40 million towards to the project, while back in 2011 the Stormont executive pledged £62.5 million, with the GAA contributing £15 million.

That leaves a significant shortfall and, on a recent visit to Belfast, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted the government would make a “substantial contribution” to the redevelopment - but refused to say how much, or whether it would happen in time for Euro 2028.

In April, Northern Ireland sports minister Gordon Lyons said he was still awaiting clarity from the British government on how much money it will contribute to the project, adding that uncertainty over funding streams was acting as a “blockage” to the redevelopment.