GAA Football

Renowned figures join steering group for new Down GAA centre in Ballykinlar

Planning approval for Down GAA's £9m Centre of Participation was finally granted by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council during the summer
Neil Loughran

RENOWNED figures from a range of different backgrounds have been pulled together to help progress Down GAA’s plans for a new £9million Centre of Participation in Ballykinlar.

Planning approval for the project was finally granted by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council during the summer - a significant step forward for the development of four full size GAA pitches (three of which are floodlit), spectator seating, multi-use games area, changing rooms, fitness studio and ancillary offices on a site that was formerly part of the Ballykinlar army base.

The next step was the establishment of a project board, under the chairmanship of Feargal McCormack, to provide the strategic direction going forward, and that group - which will operate as a sub-committee of the Down County Board - is to meet for the first time on Monday night.

In addition to McCormack, who is managing director of PKF-FPM Accountants, Down County Board chairman Jack Devaney and senior officers Maureen O’Higgins, Sean Og McAteer and Diarmuid Cahill, another nine names make up the project board – with the possibility of others being added in the coming days.

Among those confirmed thus far is Newry man Francis Campbell, current vice-chancellor of the University of Notre Dame in Australia and is a former British Ambassador to the Holy See.

Tony Canniford is the former Ministry of Defence (MoD) estate manager at Ballykinlar, while John McCallister is former Ulster Unionist MLA for South Down. The Rathfriland man resigned from the UUP due to its decision to engage in an electoral pact with the DUP, and was a co-founder of the NI21 party alongside another ex-UUP member, Basil McCrea.

Rostrevor man Jim Clerkin has over 30 years of experience in the beer, wine and spirits industry, becoming president and CEO of Moët Hennessy in North America after rising through the ranks at Guinness back home in Ireland.

Julie Sinnamon was CEO of Enterprise Ireland between 2013 and 2021, and took over as chairperson of European Movement Ireland back in June.

Donal Durkan is an executive director with Invest NI, while Tom Kelly is a well-known commentator - and Irish News Columnist – who was vice-chairman of the SDLP and political assistant to former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon.

Professor Deirdre Heenan, from Annaclone, is a former pro-vice chancellor of Ulster University and a former Provost of the University's Coleraine and Magee campuses. Prof Heenan was also appointed to the Council of State by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, in 2012.

Neil Collins will need no such introduction to Down GAA fans, having been goalkeeper on the Mourne County’s All-Ireland winning sides of 1991 and 1994 – famously saving a penalty from Dublin’s Charlie Redmond in the ’94 final.

Earlier this year Collins was named as the new managing director of Ballymena bus manufacturer Wrightbus.

“It’s an ambitious project, and we wanted to reflect that in how we approached it,” said county chairman Jack Devaney.

“The people who are part of our project board are part of something that brings strategic direction, they are senior figures within various walks of life who bring a lot of expertise, experience and knowledge, and have strong networking ability.

“For us this isn’t simply a GAA project - it reaches out beyond that, it has potential, it is going to take a lot of work and a lot of finance. We still live in uncertain times, so we really do have to put our best foot forward in terms of trying to realise this project.”

The establishment of this body comes four years after the Down County Board gave approval for advanced negotiations with the MoD on the proposal of a lease for development.

After discussions between officials of Down GAA and MoD representatives on the proposed lease and development of part of the Abercorn Barracks site into a multi-purpose GAA complex, plans were drafted and advanced through the consultation and planning phases.

In 2019 Down GAA appointed Faithful & Gould to carry out an assessment of options for the potential development of a Centre of Participation, with that team led by Dromara man Anthony McNeill.

The proposed Centre of Participation will include the activities of Ballykinlar GAA “and will also support various community activities providing for health and wellbeing opportunities and access to basic services,” according to a project briefing paper.

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