Northern Ireland news

Ten years on, where now for the Casement Park project?

The estimated cost of redeveloping Casement Park has risen to £110 million after years of problems and setbacks. Brendan Hughes speaks to some key figures in the redevelopment plan to assess where the project now stands - a decade after it was first announced.

An aerial view of the proposed stadium at Casement Park
Brendan Hughes

TEN years ago this week, Ulster GAA announced it intended to build a major new provincial stadium.

The location was later confirmed to be Casement Park in west Belfast – the main ground for Gaelic games in the city.

At the time, Ulster Council secretary, the late Danny Murphy, said they planned to construct the new stadium "within the next year".

A decade on, Casement lies derelict.

The stadium has remained closed since 2013 amid efforts to progress its redevelopment, but the project has faced a litany of problems and setbacks.

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Planning approval was granted in 2013 for a 38,000-capacity stadium, but in 2014 that approval was quashed in a High Court legal challenge brought by some residents.

The project was reviewed the following year after a safety expert claimed the planned stadium could not be evacuated safely in certain emergencies.

Casement Park in west Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

A report found "broken" relationships behind the scenes and made a series of recommendations on reviving the project.

New plans were submitted by Ulster GAA in February 2017 with a reduced capacity of around 34,000. They are still being assessed by planning officials in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

Casement's redevelopment is part of a Stormont programme which also pledged major upgrades to Belfast sports grounds for soccer and rugby.

Following the scrapping in 2009 of plans for a £55 million multi-sports stadium at the former Maze prison site, Kingspan Stadium received £14.7m while Windsor Park received £28.75m for smaller upgrades which brought their capacities to around 18,000.

With these improvements finished years ago, Casement remains the last of the three left to be redeveloped.

Brian McAvoy, Ulster GAA. Picture by Mark Marlow

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

But last week Ulster GAA confirmed the cost has risen to around £110m – creating a budgetary shortfall of £32.5m.

Where this extra money will come from remains unclear.

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A fresh business case has been submitted by Ulster GAA to the Department for Communities (DfC), which heads the stadia upgrade programme.

Tracy Meharg, who leads the department after becoming DfC permanent secretary in December, said Casement was "one of the things I was briefed on quite early".

It is rare for civil servants to give press interviews but they are now running departments following the collapse of the executive in January 2017.

Tracy Meharg, permanent secretary of the Department for Communities. Picture by Mal McCann

Ms Meharg said answering questions in the absence of a minister was "not a comfortable place to be in".

"Our statutory responsibility is to work under the direction and control of ministers and that's what we think we should be doing," she said.

"There are people out there and they will be saying we are not elected, and therefore we have to take that into account in our decision-making processes.

"So my hope is that we get ministers back as soon as possible, but it is my responsibility in the meantime to ensure that in so far as I can that the department continues to deliver the services efficiently and effectively to citizens and this department has a very wide range of programmes which impact on citizens."

There are still questions over what decisions civil servants can take without ministerial approval.

Casement Park has been closed since 2013. This is what the new one will resemble should the GAA get planning permission

Ms Meharg said while DfC can assess Ulster GAA's new business case and make a recommendation to minister on its viability she cannot take the decision herself – and cannot allocate more public funding without ministerial approval.

"The budget for the project is the £77m, the cost of the project is in the region of £110m, and it will be a matter for an executive to decide," she said.

"A part of that will be a discussion with the Ulster Council around the appropriate balance between public funding and Ulster Council or GAA funding for that, but we haven't had those conversations in a sense.

"We can take this so far, i.e. in principle we can say this project stacks up at that amount.

"The next stage of that, which I think would take ministers, would be to actually do a deal on the actual amounts between the executive and the Ulster Council, but I don't think that I would be in a position to do that."

The head of Ulster GAA, Brian McAvoy, said more than half of the cost increase has been caused by price inflation. He said other factors include design changes made for the revised planning application.

Casement Park in west Belfast. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

He would not be drawn on whether the GAA is willing to contribute more cash towards the stadium plan.

"That will be part of our discussions with the government," he said.

He added: "The funding agreement with the GAA, with the department, is that the GAA pay £15m. That's our position as of now."

Would he like Stormont to step in and pay the full £33m shortfall?

He responded: "That would be ideal, wouldn't it?”

Does he think Casement risks not being built without an additional commitment of public money?

"If it wasn't built this would be the government reneging on a commitment that they have given," he said.

"I think it is important to bear in mind, we never asked to be part of this process. The GAA were invited to be part of this process, as were our colleagues in the Irish Football Association and Ulster Rugby.

"The benefits are accruing from the rugby and soccer stadia having been delivered.

"This is an equality issue as much as anything now."

The GAA is experiencing other financial pressures including a potential €10m overspend on the €95.8m redevelopment cost of Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium in Cork.

Ulster GAA is also facing a drop in average championship match attendances from around 17,500 in 2015 to just over 12,300 last year.

Mr McAvoy said Páirc Uí Chaoimh is a "totally different beast".

"I don't want to get into that, but I think you'll find the governance issues on Casement Park are at much higher, stringent levels than would have been the case with Páirc Uí Chaoimh, because there wasn't the same amount of public money at play there," he said.

He said he would not have "any overall concerns" about attendance figures.

"You can't just pick two or three years in isolation. This is a stadium for the future," he said.

Stormont's 'indirect rule' limbo creates another headache for the Casement project - planning permission.

In a court ruling in May, 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.

But whether this provides enough legal cover to allow civil servants in DfI to grant planning approval without ministers' consent has yet to be tested.

Mr McAvoy said the DfI had suggested it might make a final decision.

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

Mr McAvoy said GAA members felt "frustration" over delays in processing the revised application.

He also suggested that the lack of a minister meant civil servants were under less pressure to move quickly.

"So I would say that part of the delay has been there's no-one basically with a big stick looking over your shoulder in the absence of a minister, for the want of a better word," he said.

Mr McAvoy said Ulster GAA wants to see the restoration of the executive but welcomed the possibility of civil servants making a swift decision.

Asked if Westminster should intervene and approve the plans, he said: "I think they should pass legislation which would take any ambiguity out of whether a senior civil servant can make the decision or not".

He said the legislation is "not clear" and Secretary of State Karen Bradley "needs to be more specific".

Ms Godfrey declined to be interviewed. However, a DfI spokeswoman said officials will continue to progress the Casement planning application "to the point where it is ready for a decision to be made".

It is clear there is substantial support among GAA fans for redeveloping Casement.

But if civil servants do grant planning permission without ministerial approval, the project could face another legal challenge from some residents who remain opposed to the stadium's planned size.

They have concerns over plans to stage concerts at Casement and have called for a smaller county ground to be developed instead.

After the original planning approval was quashed, a significant amount of work has been done to progress the project.

DfC has spent around £10.1million before building work has begun. Ulster GAA has spent around £800,000.

"Every penny of that has been fully authenticated and accounted for and justified and signed off at departmental level," Mr McAvoy said.

Asked if Ulster GAA should apologise for its handling of the project, given the numerous setbacks, Mr McAvoy said: "No. I don't think we have anything to apologise for."

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