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Casement Park stadium woes: Sports minister Caral speaks out... and the IFA clams up

I'm no bully, says Ni Chuilin, as crowd safety row escalates

Exclusive by Steven Beacom

Published 15/05/2015

Casement Park is still out of use because of delays in its revamp
Casement Park is still out of use because of delays in its revamp
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has strongly rejected any accusations of bullying over the Casement Park stadium project and revealed she was hurt by claims that she did not take safety seriously in relation to the redevelopment of the west Belfast GAA stadium.

The culture, arts and leisure (CAL) committee at Stormont voted five to three yesterday to conduct an inquiry into safety concerns at Casement Park, which followed safety expert Paul Scott telling MLAs last month that the proposed 38,000-capacity stadium could not be evacuated safely in an emergency, warning of the possibility of a similar situation to the Hillsborough tragedy. Scott, from the Safety Technical Group, claimed his concerns were ignored and that he was put under "undue pressure" by officials to approve plans for the new ground.

Asked directly about accusation of bullying, Ms Ni Chuilin said: "I'm not a bully. I was brought up in north Belfast and still live there and am not soft, but I'm not a bully. Far from it.

"People may see me on television at Question Time, and think: 'I wouldn't bring home a pay packet short of a fiver to her', but that is robust debate and what politics can often be about. I can be accused of many things, but bullying is not one of them."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt led calls for an inquiry, insisting it was "beyond belief" that Ms Ni Chuilin did not know about the safety concerns.

The Casement Park redevelopment is part of a £110m Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) project which also included the redevelopment of Ulster Rugby's Kingspan ground and Windsor Park, where the Northern Ireland football team play.

Casement has been beset by problems. Last December a High Court judge quashed a decision by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to grant planning approval for the stadium's redevelopment after local residents objected and went to court, asking for a judicial review.

The GAA is still intent on pressing ahead with the redevelopment, though the latest issues regarding safety could delay the project further.

In light of the concerns, the Sports Minister has commissioned a project assessment review looking at technical and design procedures for the stadium. An investigation will also take place into Mr Scott's allegations of bullying.

A further inquiry will also be conducted after a vote was pushed through yesterday by unionist politicians.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Ms Ni Chuilin said: "I have to say, the idea that I would be sitting on a Hillsborough-type scenario and do nothing about it, I find quite hurtful. Also, the idea that I, in conjunction with officials and the Ulster Council of the GAA, would put over 30,000 spectators and residents at risk at a semi-final or final of the Ulster Championship to get a stadium through is absolutely shocking.

"The safety aspect of all stadiums, including Casement Park, is paramount to me. It always has been and always will be. There will never be a safety certificate signed off unless Belfast City Council are satisfied. There won't be a hurl pucked or a football kicked in that stadium without a valid safety certificate."

The Sports Minister also addressed another pressing issue concerning Mr Scott's claims that he was put under undue pressure by Government officials regarding Casement Park.

It has emerged that, in December, he wrote to the board of Sport NI, stating that at a meeting about Casement he and a colleague were "met with a barrage of abuse from DCAL".

Unhappy with how his concerns were handled by Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown, he took a grievance case against her, which was subsequently upheld.

Ms McKeown's union representative, Kevin McAdam, has since stated that the Sport NI chief executive, currently suspended, acted in good faith.

When quizzed on Mr Scott's allegations, the Sports Minister said: "They have to be fully investigated. I can only reply to those allegations from my own personal experience, which is that when I heard those allegations in the evidence he gave to the CAL committee, I was completely shocked.

"I know the investigation will deal with the accusations that have been made, and if lessons need to be learnt, it will bring them out. But if Paul's allegations aren't upheld, Paul needs to explain why he felt his experience was the way he saw it. I understand when someone goes in front of a committee and makes an allegation like he did, it wasn't easy for him to do, but equally I need to respond to it."

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