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Caral Ni Chuilin: UUP's exit won't derail Casement Park plans

By Declan Bogue

Published 29/08/2015

Sports Minister Caral Ní Chuilin
Sports Minister Caral Ní Chuilin

Sports Minister Caral Ní Chuilin has criticised the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party to leave the Stormont Executive.

Describing her surprise at party leader Mike Nesbitt's announcement this week, she told The Belfast Telegraph: "I actually think it was a very confused statement he made. I think it was contradictory.

"I represent a constituency in North Belfast which recently has seen unionists sharing platforms with loyalists who have been involved in racketeering, drug dealing, murder and homophobic and racist attacks.

"That's recently, it's not past."

She added: "I have heard people talking about elections and the rest.

"Should elections be this side of Christmas or next year, we will have to come back to the same position.

"We need to get around the table and sort it out."

The minister was certain that despite the political uncertainty, the redevelopment of Casement Park as the new flagship GAA stadium in Ulster will go ahead.

She said: "A decision was made by all parties in the Executive in March 2011 that the £110m would be invested in three stadia.

"From my point of view, this is the biggest investment in the history of the State for Gaelic games and it is going to happen."

At present the Casement Park project is awaiting another planning proposal to be submitted by the Ulster Council of the GAA after planning permission was quashed last December following a judicial review, with the safety technical group raising concerns about the ability of the stadium to evacuate patrons in case of emergency.

When asked how the subsequent Cabinet Office report found there were inconsistencies between the Ravenhill, now Kingspan Stadium, Windsor Park and Casement Park, the minister replied: "That's right.

"This is where the disagreement comes in with the safety technical group (STG). The STG didn't raise concerns about Windsor, and the STG didn't raise concerns about Ravenhill."

Pressed on why that might be, she replied: "You need to ask them that."

And the claim from STG chair Paul Scott that a redeveloped Casement might result in another Hillsborough tragedy was disappointing, according to Ms Ni Chuilin, who feels vindicated by the finding of the project assessment review (PAR).

"There has never been a comparison," she said.

"I am so relieved that the PAR report has said that the pitch can be used for emergency evacuation.

"The designers for the GAA… were consistent and persistent that the pitch could be used.

"But the Hillsborough comparison, I just felt it was so shocking.

"Within hours of that accusation being made, of the three processes that began, I instructed two of them.

"The Ulster Council of the GAA have held massive games in Casement Park before. The idea that they would play fast and loose with anyone's safety, I thought was personally shocking."

She revealed that her first thought was to bring in a Westminster Cabinet Office to review proceedings.

"I just thought: 'Right, okay, people have heard this.

"They are going to feel shocked by this, we are going to have an investigation. I am going to bring a British Cabinet Office into my department'.

"Now, if you were to ask me five years ago, as an Irish republican, would I bring a British Cabinet Office to lift my carpets and go through my department with a fine toothcomb… that's how confident I was that we hadn't done anything wrong."

One of the recommendations that the PAR document suggested was the appointment of a dedicated sole responsible owner, and Ms Ni Chuilin revealed that this appointment has already been made.

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