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Casement 'farce' claim after Sinn Fein Sports Minister Ni Chuilin walks out

By Claire McNeilly

Published 04/03/2016

Nelson McCausland and Caral Ni Chuilin (pictured) clashed at yesterday’s Stormont CAL committee meeting
Nelson McCausland and Caral Ni Chuilin (pictured) clashed at yesterday’s Stormont CAL committee meeting
Nelson McCausland (pictured) and Caral Ni Chuilin clashed at yesterday’s Stormont CAL committee meeting

A Stormont committee chair said the Casement Park inquiry "has been turned into a farce" after the Sports Minister dramatically walked out, accusing him of bias and objecting to being placed under oath.

Caral Ni Chuilin refused to answer committee questions yesterday after making an extensive statement on a safety controversy around the proposed redevelopment of the GAA ground in west Belfast.

Chairman Nelson McCausland said the minister's behaviour was a "stunt" - but he added that it "may well say more about culpability than anything that could have been said in answer to questions".

Ms Ni Chuilin's appearance at the Culture, Arts and Leisure (CAL) committee came after allegations were made in January that she was aware of safety concerns around the stadium plans as far back as 2012.

In an unusual move, the Sinn Fein representative had been asked to give evidence to MLAs under sworn oath.

Ms Ni Chuilin, who swore on the Bible ahead of making her statement, accused Mr McCausland of singling her out.

She also insisted she would not take questions unless all other witnesses to the committee's stadium safety inquiry were also questioned under oath.

Ms Ni Chuilin has long insisted she only became aware of the concerns when safety expert Paul Scott told the committee in April 2015 - a claim reiterated yesterday.

Mr Scott said the stadium envisaged in plans could not be emptied safely in an emergency and warned of a similar situation to the Hillsborough tragedy.

The GAA's efforts to develop the old stadium site have been mired in controversy, with initial planning approval for a 38,000-capacity venue quashed by the High Court in 2014 following a challenge by nearby residents.

The CAL committee launched an investigation into the redevelopment plans after Mr Scott informed members of his safety concerns.

Ms Ni Chuilin and the Gaelic Athletic Association have both insisted they acted correctly throughout the design process.

The hearing at Parliament Buildings was suspended for around 10 minutes in the wake of the ministerial walk-out.

When it returned, Mr McCausland claimed the Assembly had never before witnessed such behaviour from a minister.

"While the minister is entitled legally not to answer any questions, everyone else is entitled to draw their own conclusions from that," he said.

"The fact that she wouldn't answer any questions on any matter or on any aspect of this issue will raise further questions in many, many minds as to why she won't.

"In the context of something that has never happened before in this Assembly, of a minister walking out and refusing to answer questions, and thereby thwarting the democratic process and democratic scrutiny by elected representatives, and by treating the committee in the contemptuous way and shameful way we were treated this morning, I think the word stunt is probably an understatement."

Referring to the present inquiry into safety at Casement Park, Mr McCausland added that the process "has been turned into a farce this morning".

William Humphrey of the DUP said it was unprecedented that the minister had left without answering questions and said it was "the latest in a string of discourtesies extended to this committee by the minister and the department".

The GAA wants to build a new stadium on its existing grounds at Casement Park, but the multi-million pound project has been beset with problems and delays. Its planning permission was overturned last year.

The Culture, Arts and Leisure committee is conducting an inquiry into whether "appropriate consideration was given to plans for emergency exiting during the design process".

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