Newton Emerson: GAA right to blame government for Casement confusion

Irish News columnist looks back over the week that was in the news

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

The rebuilding of Casement Park is in Jarlath Burns's eye-line
GAA president Jarlath Burns has expressed his frustration at lack of clarity on funding for the redevelopment of Casement park

GAA president Jarlath Burns has conceded Casement Park is unlikely to be rebuilt in time for the 2028 Euros.

“The carrot was dangled in front of us and then it was taken away,” he said, correctly placing the blame on the government. The prime minister and the Northern Ireland Office rushed into a promise then equivocated over the cost. They have now given up for an election.

Sinn Féin has called this “open contempt”. Labour says the Conservatives “dithered and delayed” and the rebuild must be delivered “by any incoming government”.

GAA president Jarlath Burns said he fears the west Belfast stadium could miss out on the chance to host Euro 2028 games
GAA president Jarlath Burns said he fears the west Belfast stadium could miss out on the chance to host Euro 2028 games

Others seem wilfully confused over where responsibility lies. The legacy of what was meant to be a reconciliation project is becoming a sectarian argument, where unionists claim the GAA demanded an absurdly extravagant design and nationalists claim unionists somehow stopped it, or did not do enough. Conspiracy theories about Tory-DUP plots are filling the information void.

It would have been wise to make the following clear from the outset: purpose-built stadiums for one-off international events are almost always an extravagance that government is expected to cover, especially when it was the government’s idea.


The PSNI telephone snooping scandal has widened beyond surveillance of journalists and their contacts. Links are now being made to a 2014 PSNI internal investigation into vehicle contracts.

Among those questioned were Duncan McCausland, an assistant chief constable. Everyone was exonerated, and a case taken over claims of illegal surveillance has now led to a separate investigation into alleged misconduct involving other former officers. Further officers and staff, past and serving, are coming forward with similar allegations about illegal surveillance.

The vehicle contracts story deserves wider recognition as a calamitous event for policing in Northern Ireland. It caused divisions in PSNI management that led to years of dysfunction, spreading throughout the organisation and beyond. Snooping is far from the only problem that leads back to it.


Application fees will be introduced to “protect” the Translink Smartpass scheme, Sinn Féin infrastructure minister John O’Dowd has announced.

At £20 and £12 for those aged 60 and 65 respectively, the revenue raised will be trivial – perhaps £1m a year. This looks more like a policy the Downing Street ‘nudge unit’ might come up with. Fees are just high enough to deter very occasional public transport users, who might then pay the odd fare themselves.

A consultation is ongoing on changes to the SmartPass free travel scheme.
Application fees will be introduced to “protect” the Translink Smartpass scheme

It does illustrate how the travel pass really works. As most users are taking seats that would otherwise have been empty, on buses and trains that would have run anyway, the only cost of their journey is the fare lost if they would have paid it themselves.

Apart from that, the £45m cost of the scheme is simply an addition to Translink’s £245m subsidy. It could be cut and the pass retained, although bus and train services for everyone would be decimated.


One revenue-raising measure that never appears to have been considered at Stormont is a workplace parking levy.

Thousands of cars parked at a car storage facility in Corby, Northamptonshire. Picture date: Wednesday February 17, 2021.
A levy on workplace parking is one possible way of funding public transport (Joe Giddens/PA)

Councils in England and Wales have had this ability since 2000. While only Nottingham has so far done so, it is considered a success, with an annual £522 charge per space helping to fund public transport, including development of a tram network.

There is nothing to stop Stormont giving itself or councils here the same power. It could be used to expand Belfast’s Glider.


Stormont should re-examine the wider use of public-private partnerships, according to an interesting opinion piece by Lisa Boyd, construction and procurement partner at Belfast law firm Eversheds Sutherland.

Such partnerships fell out of a favour a decade ago and Boyd is correct they would need to be revisited if a cash-strapped executive is to meet its investment goals. However, she was incorrect to describe them as “transferring risks to private partners”.

Hapless civil servants were frequently bamboozled into agreeing contracts that all but guaranteed private profits, leaving risk and further cost to the taxpayer. That is the first thing that would have to be re-examined if this concept is considered again.


The education system in Northern Ireland will be bankrupt “very, very soon”, the headmaster of Banbridge Academy has warned Stormont’s education committee.

Schools have to make three-year financial plans. Robin McLoughlin told MLAs most anticipate running a 10% deficit this year, 20% next year and 30% the following year.

The Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers rejected the pay offer
School budgets are under unprecedented pressure (Danny Lawson/PA)

Budget-busting on this scale would overwhelm the bureaucracy designed to prevent it, so one outcome could be official surrender. The only sanction available when schools go into the red is for the Education Authority to take control of their budgets. It never wants to do this and is barely capable of doing anything anyway.

In 2019, the Education Authority told the Audit Office “it is constrained in effecting financial restraint on a controlled or maintained school and that, to date, the primary avenue for effecting challenge to school management in respect of their financial planning activities has been through direct and formal accountability meetings”.

In other words, it calls the headmaster into its office.


The Department for Communities will only be able to fund 400 social housing starts this year, a quarter of its target. Housing bodies and homeless charities have voiced “grave concerns” and there is also alarm in the construction industry. But there are other sources of funding to develop.

Housing associations can borrow privately to build and there is widespread acceptance the Housing Executive should be able to do the same – this was a Sinn Féin manifesto commitment.

The manifesto pledges 1.6 million new homes
The Department for Communities will only be able to fund 400 social housing starts this year (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Private loans are paid back from rental income, which is ‘free money’ as far as Stormont is concerned, as tenants are either paying it themselves or through benefits that come out of Westminster’s budget.

Private lenders at home and abroad are keen to invest in social housing. Recent deals include £70m from Ulster Bank and £100m from a UK pension insurer.

The constraint is that Stormont generally contributes half the cost as a grant, but this rule could be changed. There should be a housing summit to find ways of unlocking all this potential.


Ian Knox cartoon 11/6/24: Nigel Farage has endorsed the DUP's Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson in the general election despite Reform UK's pact with the TUV
Ian Knox cartoon 11/6/24: Nigel Farage has endorsed the DUP's Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson in the general election despite Reform UK's pact with the TUV

Reform leader Nigel Farage has backed DUP MPs Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson in the general election, despite his party’s pact with the TUV.

This has left Jim Allister uncharacteristically lost for words. The TUV leader called it “disappointing”, when he could have called Farage a pernicious pact-dismantling Paisley-enabler.

TUV conference at the Ross Park Hotel near Ballymena
Nigel Farage's backing for Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson left TUV leader Jim Allister uncharacteristically lost for words (I Presseye/Stephen Hamilton/ Presseye/Stephen Hamilton)