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'Crush' fear over Casement Park

Published 30/04/2015

An artist’s impression of how Casement Park will look if the project receives planning permission
An artist’s impression of how Casement Park will look if the project receives planning permission
An expert has warned over a proposed upgrade to Casement Park in Belfast

An expert has expressed concern about safety at the planned new Casement Park stadium in West Belfast.

Paul Scott from the Safety Technical Group said there were only two small exits and warned if an emergency happened, people could be crushed.

Approval for a new GAA facility - a proposed venue for Ireland's 2023 rugby World Cup bid - at the site was overturned in the High Court last December after residents won a legal challenge to block the plans.

Mr Scott said he was put under "undue pressure" by government officials to approve plans for the new ground.

He said: "There are a heck of a lot of people potentially trying to get out of a relatively small place."

He said the proposed 38,000-capacity stadium could not be emptied safely in an emergency and warned of a similar situation to the Hillsborough tragedy.

Mr Scott alleged he had been left stressed and suffering from sleepless nights following bullying by Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) officials.

"If we did have an incident and there was panic and if people tried to exit... crushing, that may be more a problem than fire.

"The people who suffer then are particularly the elderly, children, ladies.

"These GAA matches are very much family affairs."

He told Stormont's Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee people had to be able to get out in eight minutes at the most because of fire risk.

More than £67 million of public money has been set aside for the Casement Park expansion as part of a Government commitment to upgrade outdated facilities for Northern Ireland's three main sports - rugby, football and Gaelic.

The GAA want to build a 38,000-capacity all-seated stadium including conference, bar/restaurant and community facilities plus car parking on the site at Andersonstown Road, which had been suggested as a potential venues for the tournament.

Residents from about 60 nearby homes objected to the size of the planned development and launched a legal challenge to halt construction.

Mr Scott said he felt isolated.

"I've spent many a sleepless night. I am also seeing a stress counsellor.

"I've worked for Sport NI for 13 or 14 years and not had a single sick day. I've not even seen a doctor in that time. I've been to see the doctor several times now."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt called for a full and transparent statement from DCAL minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

"That a safety officer should be subjected to bullying is a scandal.

"The bottom line is that the minister is the Department so the buck stops with her."

The minister said all stadiums must comply with safety requirements.

"There can be no compromise on the safety of the people who use stadiums and those who live in surrounding areas.

"Rest assured, any redeveloped stadium will not open without a fully valid and compliant safety certificate."

She listened to Mr Scott's evidence and said she had asked officials to urgently commission a full review of the project , including independent specialist advice as appropriate, which will draw on public safety expertise.

"I am aware that a number of grievances were raised at the committee, including allegations of bullying, and they are currently the subject of an ongoing investigation by Sport NI.

"These allegations need to be fully investigated and I will seek independent advice to ensure that they are dealt with appropriately.

"I have also asked the permanent secretary of DCAL to convene a meeting of the Safety Technical Group to hear their concerns at first hand."

An Ulster Council GAA spokesman said: " The GAA emphatically refutes the allegation that it pressured or 'bullied' any individual or organisation in any way. We have an impeccable safety record within our stadia throughout Ulster and Ireland.

"The GAA is appalled at being brought into a live and ongoing HR grievance matter within Sport NI. We are also concerned that today's events could prejudice our forthcoming planning application for a Provincial stadium project at Casement Park."

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