Minister ‘investigating options' for stadia funding before current Assembly ends
Communities minister Deirdre Hargey is committed to attempting to progress a scheme to upgrade football stadia in Northern Ireland within the current Assembly mandate, MLAs have been told.
However, members of the Stormont communities committee were critical of the failure to move the programme forward before now, with one MLA saying that the Assembly had been told last year that proposals would be announced within weeks.
Earlier this month, Ms Hargey said she would be unable to progress the £36.2 million programme to redevelop local sub-regional football stadia due to the absence of a functioning executive.
She claimed while the funding has been secured for the initiative, the approval of the wider Executive is required before it can progress to allocating funding for projects at specific grounds.
Ms Hargey blamed the DUP for the situation, claiming the party’s decision to pull Paul Givan out of the first minister’s role meant the stadia programme had to be placed on hold until a functioning administration is back in place.
The DUP disputed this position and contrasted it with the minister’s insistence that the redevelopment of the GAA’s Casement Park in west Belfast can continue despite the Stormont crisis.
Department of Communities official Kathryn Hill appeared before the scrutiny committee on Thursday and said the Executive had originally endorsed the scheme in March 2011.
She said that a “refresh and re-engagement” exercise was then ordered by the minister, given the passage of time.
Ms Hill added: “As set out by the minister, Executive endorsement is required for the refreshed proposals for programme delivery.
“The minister has confirmed her commitment to investigating options available to progress this programme before the end of the current mandate.
“The minister met with representatives from the IFA (Irish Football Association) and NIFL (Northern Ireland Football League) last week.
“She has also written to her ministerial colleagues, reaffirming her commitment to deliver for football and asking that they support her efforts to progress the programme as a matter of urgency.
“The minister has also written to the finance minister to request assistance on how best to address the cost increases due to inflation and how to secure additional budget.
“In the absence of an Executive Minister Hargey is considering means by which the programme can be progressed.”
UUP MLA Andy Allen said: “Where we are concerned is that the minister stated on numerous occasions in the Assembly chamber as far back as May 2021 that she would be bringing forward proposals on the way forward in the coming weeks. Why wasn’t that brought forward?”
Ms Hill responded: “The minister had always stated her intention to present the proposals before the end of this mandate. She is still working through that process.
SDLP MLA Mark Durkan said there had been a “lack of urgency” around the project.
He said: “I suspect that the minister was taking the ball into the corner flag to let the clock run down and make the announcement as close to the election as possible to get some sort of benefit out of it.
“Now the referee has blown up early and we have missed the chance to score.”
Committee chair Paula Bradley said: “I think we do need to bring in the minister to speak on this.
“We know that clubs will be listening in, NIPL and IFA will be listening in to this briefing today.
“It is really disappointing that this information has been sitting ready to go for some time and at the eleventh hour we are having to deal with this with only a few weeks left of the Assembly.”