Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

'No agreement' for government to fund £25 million upgrade of national football stadium

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland 20th February 2013 
New Windsor Park Stadium
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland 20th February 2013 New Windsor Park Stadium

No binding agreement is in place for the government to fund a £25 million upgrade of Northern Ireland's national soccer stadium, the High Court heard today.

A lawyer for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure said a final decision on whether to commit to the Windsor Park scheme centred on the question of alleged state aid.

With the issue described as a potential "game changer" for the project, a judge was told Irish League side Crusaders FC's legal challenge to the funding plans is premature.

However, Mr Justice Treacy refused a request to have the judicial review proceedings put back until September.

The Windsor Park redevelopment is part of a plan that also includes the Ulster rugby ground at Ravenhill and the GAA's Casement Park.

A total of £110m has been set aside for the three building projects through the Department.

According to Crusaders the upgrade breaches European Union competition laws.

The club claims funding the Windsor Park project would amount to a form of state aid for Linfield, one of its main rivals and stadium owners.

It argues the proposals would create unfair revenue streams as well as superior facilities at the south Belfast ground.

The first stage in its court challenge is due to be heard next week.

Counsel for the Department, Paul McLaughlin, today sought an adjournment so that the European Commission can form a preliminary view on the issue of state aid.

Its opinion will have a major influence on how the case develops, he predicted.

Mr McLaughlin pointed out that it could lead to a notification process taking up to two years, with potential implications for the scheme.

He told the court there is currently no commitment to fund the stadium upgrade.

"We would say this entire judicial review is premature because it's premised on the idea that binding agreements are in place, that the government has committed finance to the Windsor park redevelopment. That is not the case," he said.

"There is planning permission in place, but the final decision on whether to commit to funding has not taken place."

His assessment was disputed by Peter Girvan, for Crusaders, who pointed to a description of the plans on the Irish Football Association's website.

Mr Girvan also pointed out that construction work is already underway at Ravenhill as part of the overall £110m package.

"It seems to us there is absolutely no reason why the application should be delayed," he added.

Following his submissions, Mr Justice Treacy confirmed the hearing will proceed as planned on May 21.