Northern Ireland news

Casement Park: 'Ideal' for Stormont to pay funding shortfall says Ulster GAA

Proposals for the redevelopment of Casement Park in west Belfast
Brendan Hughes

STORMONT using public money to pay off Casement Park's £32.5 million funding shortfall "would be ideal", the head of Ulster GAA has said.

Brian McAvoy would not be drawn on whether the GAA is willing to contribute more cash towards the stadium plan as it emerged the projected cost has surged to £110m – more than 40 per cent more than budgeted.

"That will be part of our discussions with the government," the Ulster GAA secretary told The Irish News.

The west Belfast stadium's original budget was £77.5m with Stormont pledging £62.5m towards the project and the GAA providing the rest.

GAA chiefs now want more public money to help plug the £32.5m funding gap, but civil servants say they cannot allocate more funding without ministerial approval.

Asked how Ulster GAA plans to pay for Casement following the cost increase, Mr McAvoy said: "The funding agreement with the GAA, with the department, is that the GAA pay £15m. That's our position as of now."

When asked if he would like Stormont to pay the extra £32.5m, he said: "That would be ideal, wouldn't it?"

The new projected cost comes almost 10 years since Ulster GAA first announced its plan to build a major new stadium at Casement Park, but the troubled project has faced numerous problems and setbacks.

In 2014 planning approval for the original 38,000-capacity design was quashed in a legal challenge.

The project underwent a review the following year after a safety expert claimed the initial design could not be evacuated safely in certain emergencies.

Revised plans for a 34,000-capacity ground were submitted to Stormont officials in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) in February 2017 and are still under consideration.

The project has so far cost around £10.1m before construction work has even begun.

Tom Daly, chairman of the Casement Park project board, yesterday confirmed the stadium's estimated budget is "now likely to be in the region of £110m".

He said the "prolonged nature of the planning process is stalling the project's progress and is also impacting its budgetary estimate".

Mr Daly added that delays in some statutory bodies responding to planners about the application was a "cause of frustration within our project team and across the wider GAA community".

"Ulster GAA recognises and fully respects the required due diligence by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) and all statutory consultees," he said in a statement.

"However, the prolonged nature of the planning process is stalling the project's progress and is also impacting its budgetary estimate which is now likely to be in the region of £110m.

"With every day of delay pushing out the earliest possible start on site for the project it is imperative that government departments discharge their responsibilities as expediently as possible to mitigate against increased costs."

Northern Ireland has not had a power-sharing government since the executive fell apart in early 2017, leaving civil servants to run departments in the absence of ministers.

There have been questions over what decisions can be made in the executive's absence following a major court ruling in May last year, when a judge said civil servants did not have the legal power to approve an incinerator planning application without ministers.

Legislation was later passed at Westminster in an attempt to give Stormont officials greater legal clarity on decision-making in the executive's absence.

Ulster GAA secretary Brian McAvoy said that in recent correspondence, DfI had suggested it might make a final decision on whether to grant planning permission without ministerial approval.

He said a meeting had been requested with DfI's permanent secretary Katrina Godfrey, but she had replied saying she could not meet as it was possible she would be the "final decision-maker".

DfI was asked whether it believes the legislation enacted at Westminster last year enables the department to grant planning permission for Casement without ministerial approval.

In a statement, a DfI spokesman said officials will continue progressing the planning application "to the point where it is ready for a decision to be made".

"At the point where a decision is ready to be made, in the continued absence of ministers and taking account of the context at that stage, the department will consider whether to issue any future decision," she added.

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