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Caral Ni Chuilin to face MLAs again as Casement Park row takes new twist

By Noel McAdam

Published 29/01/2016

A full house for Tyrone v Derry at Casement Park in 2009
A full house for Tyrone v Derry at Casement Park in 2009

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has agreed to go back to a Stormont committee over claims she was aware of safety concerns in the Casement Park project more than three years ago.

Dominic Walsh, a former chair of Sport NI, said he would be surprised if the Sinn Fein minister did not know about the issues as far back as 2012.

Ms Ni Chuilin previously told the committee she first heard about fears over planned emergency exits for the stadium project last year.

But Mr Walsh told the committee the minister was present at a briefing, along with DCAL's then permanent secretary and special adviser, in the summer of 2012, when their detailed discussions included the possible purchase of houses near the west Belfast ground to improve exiting arrangements.

NI21 leader Basil McCrea asked Mr Walsh if he was surprised that the minister told the committee last year: "I am not aware of concerns being raised as far back as 2009 or since."

Mr Walsh said: "That surprises me and it is possible that she doesn't have a record of it. The emergency exits and the need to purchase housing was being discussed back in 2012."

Confirming she would attend, the minister reiterated: "I was not aware of allegations in relation to concerns around emergency exiting at Casement Park prior to April 2015.

"I immediately commissioned a fully independent project assessment review led by the British Cabinet Office."

At the committee, chair Nelson McCausland asked when Mr Walsh became aware of concerns.

He replied: "From the outset there were issues in the initial outline business case."

Safety experts have said they were told pressure could be put on the PSNI to get a police report changed over safety measures - allegations emphatically denied by both senior police officers and GAA officials.

Stadiums expert Paul Scott from Sport NI told how he was allegedly put under pressure to pass health and safety plans despite fears the 38,000-capacity stadium could not be vacated safely in an emergency situation.

At yesterday's committee meeting Sinn Fein's Oliver McMullan asked if the concerns were raised with Mr McCausland, who was Sports Minister before Ms Ni Chuilin.

Mr Walsh said: "I don't recall having any conversations in detail about emergency exiting concerns.

"It was more about the funding of the broader project... moving from the Maze project to three separate projects."

And answering Sinn Fein's Rosie McCorley, Mr Walsh said Sport NI led the project from March 2011 to early 2012, when DCAL took over. During that time "while the stadia projects were important, preparations for the Olympic games in London took precedence".

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