Northern Ireland news

Addressing GAA pitch shortage in Belfast doesn't mean soccer loses out, SDLP councillor says

Henry Jones playing field in east Belfast, the scene of security alert this week. Picture Mal McCann
Allan Preston

An SDLP councillor has said that increasing the number of GAA pitches in Belfast will not mean excluding soccer teams.

Séamas de Faoite made the comments following a security alert this week at grounds used by East Belfast GAA.

The Henry Jones playing fields in Castlereagh were closed on Monday night and Tuesday after a threatening note named the club and said several devices had been left on the pitches.

After extensive searches, police said nothing untoward was discovered.

East Belfast GAA later criticised a statement from the TUV election candidate Anne Smyth, who had complained of “GAA expansionism” and questioned the transparency of a Belfast City Council decision to grant use of “the home ground for three well-established football clubs”.

The scene of a security alert at the Henry Jones playing fields earlier this week where the East Belfast GAA team train. Picture Mal McCann

Information on the Belfast City Council website states the council manages and operates 128 sports pitches and playing fields across 28 sites.

A ten-year Playing Pitches Strategy published in 2010 found there was a deficiency of council-owned fields of one pitch for soccer in Belfast compared to a shortage of 64 pitches for gaelic sports.

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A council spokesperson said that provisions for the GAA in east Belfast had been discussed at the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in March.

It was agreed that East Belfast GAA should be granted use of the Henry Jones Playing Fields, with work starting immediately to reconfigure four existing grass pitches to create one soccer pitch and one GAA pitch at the site.

It was also agreed that soccer bookings that were no longer able to be accommodated would be switched to alternative facilities in the east of the city.

After the decision was ratified by full council last month, the council said “extensive engagement” has taken place and Henry Jones Playing Fields are currently being used for both soccer and GAA bookings. 

“Where bookings from any sporting discipline cannot be facilitated at this site, staff are continuing to work with clubs to help them secure space at other council-owned facilities, including nearby alternatives at Cherryvale, Victoria Park and Blanchflower Park.”

SDLP councillor Séamas de Faoite.

Mr de Faoite said he was keen to challenge a perception that soccer teams would lose out to the GAA in east Belfast.

“Work has gone on at great length to make sure no club is without space to use,” he told The Irish News.

“Some of the clubs that have been moved are quite happy with the facilities they are moving to. That includes the Cherryvale playing fields which are some of the best facilities the council has.”

He also acknowledged that a number of soccer pitches in east Belfast needed work to reach better standards.

 “I think we’ve seen that in Victoria Park where there’s issues around flooding. That’s a conversation that all east Belfast councillors are up for having,” he said.

“Across the whole of the city, there is a challenge specifically in relation to GAA pitches. There simply aren’t enough.”

Regarding Mrs Smyth’s suggestion the council process over the Henry Jones playing fields had not been transparent, he said:  “Anne Smyth was wrong, whoever was telling her this was wrong.

“I think the election results in east Belfast speaks for itself. There are plenty of parties that are willing to work together to ensure there is good provision on pitches and facilities across the east and all codes of sport.

“Those parties were all returned and Anne Smyth wasn’t elected. I’m in the business of getting on with things.

“There’s broadly a sense of political parties in east Belfast wanting to work together to deliver what they can.”