Casement Park benefits will far exceed the cost, reckons Ulster GAA's Stephen McGeehan
Ulster GAA's Stephen McGeehan, the Casement Park Project Sponsor, sat down with Kenny Archer to talk through the benefits, the costs, and the design of the stadium planned for west Belfast.
Essentially, the phrase 'you have to speculate to accumulate' is a key element of the Casement Park re-development proposal.
The economic argument is that expenditure will bring significant financial returns, explained McGeehan:
"In terms of the construction of the stadium, clearly the costs of the stadium have increased over the years. But Casement Park will be one of the largest construction projects in the north when it gets to site, so there will be significant economic benefits.
"In terms of employment; there is the execution of the contract on site, the construction; the fact that the construction companies will be coming into Belfast, they'll be looking for subcontractors, they'll be looking for sub-consultants. We would see that having the benefit of economically making a huge difference.
"There's been nothing else significant [in west Belfast] since the development of the Leisure Centre in Andersonstown and we think Casement Park can play a big role there, of course. Because of its size, that will have a ripple effect, right through Belfast, but also right through the north as well.
"One of the things that we're very keen on is a whole new concept around community wealth-building. It's not just about creating jobs and employment and apprenticeships, but making sure that the whole local economy benefits from the development of the stadium.
"So that includes local community facilities, local hospitality, local shops and retail, so that all the money invested in Casement can have an effect throughout the entire economy.
"In terms of the number of jobs, we're working through that detail at the moment with the business case, but there will be literally hundreds of jobs created both on the construction of Casement and then as you move into the operation of Casement - the stewards who look after the management of the facility, the staff who will run the Community Cafe, the tour guides who will take us around the stadium as well.
"We see this making a very significant contribution to not just the operation of the stadium but also to west Belfast as a tourism destination. We've worked very closely with Failte Feirste Thiar [Visit West Belfast] and all of the community organisations in the city to add Casement Park to what's a very growing list of iconic venues throughout Belfast that we hope that people will visit.
"I'm sure you've noticed recently in the Discover Ireland ads that Croke Park features very heavily… We hope in the not-too-distant future that Casement Park, like Titanic Belfast and Crumlin Road Gaol and all the local tourist facilities that are here, that we can add Casement Park to that list."
Casement Park has been included in the bid dossier to host soccer's Euro 2028 tournament, formulated by the FA, FAI, and the IFA, Scottish FA, and Welsh FA.
McGeehan is delighted that the GAA seems set to play a significant hosting role if the bid is approved by Uefa next year:
"Both Croke Park and Casement Park have been included in that bid. Obviously, the bid's been driven by the FAI and by the FA in England. The home country Associations of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland are very much supporting that and they seem to be relatively confident of success.
"If anything is to happen in Belfast, it can and only will happen, at Casement Park. So we've been working very closely with the IFA, and the central bid team over recent weeks and months, and Casement Park will be included in the list of preferred venues.
"The timescale for the development of the stadium means that Casement, when completed, could be available for the games in 2028. There could be as many as five games played here in Belfast, which from a GAA perspective, we think is transformational.
"We've always had an ambition about bringing large GAA matches back to Belfast. But the idea of bringing major international tournaments involving other sports, working in a co-operative way with our associations here, and both the IFA and [Ulster] rugby, we think that actually this will deliver some of the benefits that were originally intended to happen at the Maze/ Long Kesh, the multi-sport idea, bringing major events here.
"We think that could make a very significant contribution to not only the co-operation and peace-building on the island of Ireland, but also very much to the economy here - because you can imagine that holding five international soccer matches over a period of the summer of 2028 it would have a significant and positive effect here in Belfast as well."
Putting Belfast, and Casement Park in particular, on the international map, is an aspect which truly appeals to McGeehan and Ulster GAA:
"The spirit in which the approach came from Patrick Nelson from the IFA to us is that Northern Ireland clearly would like to play a part in it being genuinely a home countries bid.
"The only way that that could happen was at Casement Park; neither Windsor Park, or even any future alterations there would unlikely get them to the capacity that you ever would require.
"So we've been involved in a series of technical meetings, looking at how that might be done. And we've done that with a very open heart because in the end of the day, we want Casement Park to be showcased to the world.
"It's brilliant from a GAA perspective that you'll have counties from Munster, Connacht, and Leinster using Casement Park.
"But one of the most celebrated situations in the GAA's history was during that period whenever we hosted the rugby and soccer internationals in Croke Park, and particularly the iconic day in which Ireland played England [in the Six Nations] when Croke Park was showcased right across the world.
"We now see an opportunity in the not-too-distant future where the same thing could happen for Casement Park and that will be an absolutely brilliant achievement. It'd be something that I know that GAA members would be rightly proud of, the fact that we assisted to bring such major events here.
The delays to the Casement Park project have led to spiralling construction cost estimates. Despite commitments from Stormont and the GAA itself there is still a significant funding gap to be plugged.
The most vocal critics of the project argue that too much money has been 'wasted' already and that the re-development of the west Belfast venue simply cannot be afforded now in economically straitened times.
However, McGeehan is confident that the political will is there to ensure the re-development of Casement is completed, as was the case with soccer's Windsor Park and rugby's Ravenhill.
"Let me just come back to the start: clearly, over 10 years ago the GAA was invited to participate in this process. When the GAA looked at the re-development of Casement Park it was never through the lens of an amount of money or a fixed amount, it was a strategic requirement to be able to hold Ulster Finals and major events back in Belfast.
"Ten years ago now we came within a few days of getting started on site and delivering that ambition for around £80 million.
"Clearly in the 10 years that have elapsed since, with a number of delays that have been outside of the GAA's control, the cost of delivering that ambition has increased fairly significantly. We find ourselves in a position where the cost of delivering Casement will be more than was originally intended."
Pressed on how much the project will cost to complete if given the go-ahead next year, McGeehan said:
"We have been tracking costs, we are still working on the business case, so I'm not in the position to confirm a final figure at the moment. But to say that whenever the design is completed in the spring, that we will have a much firmer position on the future final construction costs.
"There is no doubt that that has increased significantly from where we started - but what hasn't changed is the commitment of the government through successive programme for governance to support us.
"Casement did feature within the 'New Decade New Approach' [the agreement to restore the Stormont Executive in January 2020]. Whilst we don't have an executive, at the moment, the outgoing Executive ministers in both Communities and in Finance were very clear in relation to their view that the government would support the shortfall that you referred to earlier. That remains our understanding, as of today…
"We remain committed from the GAA's perspective: we committed £15million a number of years ago. Despite the challenges that we've had with COVID, and loss of income, both at Ulster and central level, we're still prepared to make that £15million commitment.
"We're assured by governments, past and hopefully future, that they will assist us to make sure that the project has the sufficient budget to proceed. We'll be in a better position in the spring of next year to state more clearly what the costs are going to be."
Stephen McGeehan is not concerned about which political party holds either the Communities or Finance portfolios if and when Stormont returns, explaining:
"We've been at this for over 10 years, longer than I care to remember, and we've worked with ministers from all parties in the delivery of Casement, including at a time back in 2017 where the DUP held the [sports/Communities] ministry – it was actually Paul Givan, former First Minister.
"The DUP, and Paul Givan as Minister back then, were just as enthusiastic about delivery of Casement as we were - for a couple of reasons:
"Number one, there was the regional element, where we had the IFA's development and rugby's, and the whole link to the sub-regional program where the Premier League grounds here are deserving of investment and improvement as well.
"So we would say that the parties ultimately will decide which of the government departments that they take.
"We believe that there is cross-party support amongst all of the parties for the delivery of Casement. We've been recently meeting with the Alliance Party more since they've established themselves in terms of the number of Assembly seats that they have and future ministerial portfolios. They too are very supportive of Casement Park.
"If you take something like the Euros  that may happen in the future, and major international events, and while costs clearly have gone up there is also a very significant opportunity now to use Casement Park in the future as a 'pump primer' to bring further investment into the city, to bring major events into the city as well.
"From our discussions with all of the parties across the piece, they all see the benefits in that so we look forward to working with whoever comes back in a returning Executive."
Ulster GAA's success in the judicial review completed back in May was a triumph for compromise, believes McGeehan:
"From the point of view of the stadium, the capacity was smaller, the design took into more consideration the local area, we'd incorporated a terrace area, we've moved the boundaries of the stadium further away from residents' properties; we'd engaged wholeheartedly with the neighbours, not just on the design, but on the future operation. So we felt that we've done everything that we could…
"We were delighted with the outcome in the end. And like everything in this process, it was never about the GAA being triumphalist about it or beating our chest at a 'win' over the local neighbours.
"This was about us feeling as if now we can begin to think about the next stage, which we had never got to before. And that is getting started on site.
"All of our work, all of our discussions at the moment are very much focused on getting started work at Casement Park next year."
The upper reaches of the stadium have an innovative clear aspect, designed to allow light onto the surrounding area – and which will be a beacon on big occasions, suggests McGeehan:
"We're very fortunate - we would say that Populous, who are our design team based in London, are probably one of the world's leading stadia architects. Years ago under a different name they were involved in Croke Park. They've done the Aviva in Dublin, the recent Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the first billion-pound stadium in the UK and Ireland, which is seen as world-leading.
"That whole area of the translucent material, the brightness, it being able to change colours depending on the event that it is hosting, that has benefits aesthetically, but it also has benefits in that it's not a dark large building in the centre of a residential area."
The Ballinderry man added, with a smile: "When Derry are playing another Ulster Final we'll light it up in red and white. It means that you can celebrate civic days as well. I know Belfast City Hall is used for big, cultural and civic events like Pride, for example, in recent years.
"So whether we're hosting Ulster finals or hosting conferences or events or other international competitions, Casement can be used as a hub to showcase things."
Casement Park will be the home of Antrim GAA, but also Ulster's regional stadium, and a home for all Gaelic games, insisted McGeehan:
"The architects' approach to our building was that the concrete base is very much about the strong foundations of the GAA and then the translucent materials that go around are a pointer towards the GAA's bright future here in Belfast.
"Clearly, from a GAA perspective, we haven't had an Ulster football final in the city of Belfast since the early 1970s, that's over 50 years ago. Now, we all know what has happened in between times with the onset of the Troubles and the conflict in the city and all across the north.
"But that fantastic new stadium coming back to Belfast, will be really, really exciting. In the last couple of months, we've been re-engaging with the design team.
"We had a planning application that had us at a stage where you could apply for planning. Then as we move towards the building, when you hand over the design to the building contractor, there needs to be further design.
"So we've been back in meetings with Antrim GAA, talking to our colleagues in ladies football, camogie, and handball, and the community organisations, the businesses in the area.
"Reminding them, this is what the stadium can actually do, not just on a match-day, but as a seven-day-a-week asset.
"What are its facilities? We've got a community cafe, we're going to have an interpretative Cultural Centre, there'll be a community hub there.
"I always borrow this phrase from the Tyrone GAA centre in Garvaghey – 'There's something for the ordinary, the less ordinary, and the extraordinary.' So whether you're playing county senior football or hurling, or you're just simply popping into Casement for a cup of tea on a on a wet Monday morning, there's hopefully going to be something there for everyone."