Down cannot afford any further hold-up on centre of excellence: Ronan Sheehan

Planning approval for Down GAA's centre of excellence was granted by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in 2021
Planning approval for Down GAA's centre of excellence was granted by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in 2021

DOWN GAA cannot afford any more hold-up on plans for a new centre of excellence in Ballykinlar, according to county hurling boss Ronan Sheehan.

The multi-million pound project has been in the works for past seven years, with planning approval finally granted by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in 2021 for four full size GAA pitches (three of which are floodlit), spectator seating, a multi-use games area, changing rooms, fitness studio and ancillary offices on a site that was formerly part of the Ballykinlar army base.

However, progress has been slow, and reports circulated in recent days about a council committee’s decision to vote against supporting the Down County Board’s application for EU funding in a behind-closed-doors meeting.

The matter was not listed on the enterprise, regeneration and tourism committee agenda but, in an open session, it was claimed that – on the proposal of Sinn Fein councillor Mickey Ruane, second by party colleague Philip Campbell – Down GAA’s application had been rejected.

Relaying the decision, councillor Ruane said: “Unfortunately, council are not in a position to provide support to Down County Board for their application to PeacePlus for a centre of participation, wellbeing and shared learning hub as it is in direct competition with the council’s wellbeing hub in Warrenpoint.”

However, according to Down County Board sources, there is some confusion about why the matter was brought to the council in the first place.

“We have been aware of council support for the project, and we’re just seeking some clarity on this matter,” said a spokesperson for Down GAA.

Ronan Sheehan's Down begin their National League 2A campaign away to Laois on February 4
Down boss Ronan Sheehan believes Down is in desperate need of a centre of excellence. Picture by Philip Walsh

Sheehan admits he would be “absolutely stunned” if the council decided against supporting such a significant project, especially when “the need for Down GAA to have a home has never been greater”.

“I genuinely couldn’t believe it, or understand the logic,” he said, “because the council have given them land, are providing funding, they were only being asked here to sign a letter of support.

“Even from a development perspective, in terms of the amount of games that will be played there when Ballykinlar gets up and running, that’ll bring business into the town and surrounding areas. It won’t just benefit Down GAA, it will benefit the wider economy in the area as well.

“Without Peace funding, there would be a sizeable gap in the funding for Ballykinlar, and we need to have a base as soon as possible.

“We’re up in the Dub at the minute, at least I know where I am every Tuesday and Thursday – though, incidentally, the Dub has been closed tonight (Thursday) because of the weather. We had trained last night instead, but in ordinary circumstances we wouldn’t have had a field to train on. That’s happened a couple of times this year.

“Pitches are already under savage pressure. Since Christmas, it’s been nothing but rain, so it has a massive detrimental impact on all the county squads – male, female, underage and senior – to operate, and to have these constant delays.

“It’s really frustrating.”

Last year the Down County Board missed out on government levelling-up funding, when the Ballykinlar centre of excellent was overlooked in favour of 10 other projects across the North, which shared a £71 million pot.

Had the bid been successful, it would have covered the vast majority - if not all - the anticipated cost anticipated and allowed work to get under way.