THE first game in the new Casement Park looks set to finally be played in 2025 after the redevelopment was given its long-awaited green light yesterday.
While the MORA residents’ group that sought a judicial review have six weeks to appeal yesterday’s High Court decision not to grant one, a further legal challenge appears highly unlikely.
The stadium’s rebuild will take roughly two years, though work on-site at the west Belfast venue will not begin until next year with Ulster GAA still needing to finalise its business case and nail down the issue of funding the growing overspend.
While reluctant to commit to being ready for use at some point in the All-Ireland championship of 2025, the earlier they are able to get on-site next year, the more likely that will be.
While the details have to be reaffirmed in the renewed business case, there’s expected to be no change to the commitment that all future Ulster football finals and semi-finals will be held at the new venue.
Ulster GAA is also “hopeful” that the central GAA will use Casement for the All-Ireland quarter-final stages.
Stephen McGeehan, Ulster GAA’s project sponsor for Casement Park, says the like of this weekend’s Armagh-Tyrone qualifier, which will be a home game for Armagh in the Athletic Grounds, is “where Casement could come into its own”.
“Where fixtures exceed the capacity available in the county grounds, this is where Casement could come into its own. It could host qualifier games, quarter-finals, whatever those games might be, because counties might look at them and feel they can bring more people.”
The planning permission includes licence to hold three ‘non-GAA’ events each year, which will most likely be music concerts.
McGeehan says Ulster GAA will prioritise its games and not fall into a debacle such as in Cork this summer, where their footballers’ championship game had to be moved out of Pairc Úi Chaoimh due to an Ed Sheeran concert.
“We’ve spent ten years trying to get Casement off the ground and there’s an acknowledgement that for it to be sustainable, it needs to host the biggest games.
“The biggest games Ulster GAA is in control of, I have no doubt they will be played in Casement Park.”
St Tiernach’s Park in Clones hosted what could be the last traditional Ulster football final on Sunday, taking in a capacity crowd of around 28,500.
The restructure of the football championship next year will potentially dilute the provincial series’, with their only link to the All-Ireland proper being in the form of seeding for a round-robin stage.
McGeehan was confident Ulster would continue to hold its own and that while Clones had “served its purpose very, very well”, the province needs a new stadium.
“After the efforts last year with various motions, I’m delighted the Ulster Championship is still standing,” said the Ballinderry clubman.
“Clones is obviously an ageing venue that has a whole lot of challenges in the modern day. Thankfully it was a bright, dry day and everybody enjoyed the atmosphere, but in relation to being a modern facility, it’s a long way from that.
“I think our 2022 championship confirms there’s still an appetite for the Ulster Championship.
“We want to protect the Ulster Championship and make sure it remains attractive and something the people want to come out and see.”
The news will also come as a boost to hopes of further Irish involvement in the joint UK-Ireland bid to host soccer’s Euro 2028.
With the IFA’s National Stadium and Ulster Rugby’s Kingspan Stadium both too small to host games in a major tournament, McGeehan said the GAA was open to furthering its discussions on Casement Park being “the only prospect of hosting a game in the north”.
The new Casement Park will be available to Antrim for significant inter-county and club championship games, added McGeehan.
While there’s the possibility that Corrigan Park will still be used for suitable fixtures, Ulster GAA would “encourage as many of those games as possible” in the new Casement.
“We had an agreement in place with Antrim. With the passage of time, clearly we’ll sit down and look at that again. Antrim will enjoy a lot of good days in Casement.
“Depending on their status in the leagues, it will make sense that some of those games would be played at Casement because they would attract a good crowd.
“There’s nothing I would say is definite but Antrim’s [club] hurling and football finals were always played at Casement, I don’t see any reason why those wouldn’t be played at the new Casement either.
“Something Ulster Council would take into consideration when this is built is remembering all the people who contributed to it and the number of years Antrim couldn’t play games there,” said McGeehan, who paid tribute to the input of the late Danny Murphy and Martin McGuinness, as well as minister Deirdre Hargey and former minister Nichola Mallon.
Given the delays and the increased cost of building materials compared to three years ago, the existing estimate of £110m will be higher again by the time work begins.
The GAA have insisted they cannot pledge any more than their original £15m, though officials are confident the current political impasse at Stormont won’t impact on a final decision on funding what will be a significant overspend.