Stadium call over park development
The redevelopment of Belfast's Casement Park must provide for a stadium with a capacity in excess of 30,000, the sports minister has told MLAs.
Caral Ni Chuilin said the venue had to be of sufficient size to attract major events - such as Rugby World Cup games if Ireland secures the 2023 tournament - and to comply with a business case for £60 million plus of Stormont funding.
The GAA's efforts to develop the old stadium site in west Belfast have been mired in controversy, with an initial planning approval for a 38,000 venue quashed by the High Court last December following a challenge by nearby residents.
The GAA is currently in the preparatory stages of drawing up a fresh planning application, but some residents have insisted capacity should be limited to under 20,000.
During Assembly Question Time at Parliament Buildings, the DUP's Alastair Ross asked the minister did she agree that a 30,000 venue was needed.
Ms Ni Chuilin replied: "I would anticipate that the Ulster Council (of the GAA) are going to bring forward a planning application in the autumn. They will use the summer to consult, they will consult widely, they will ensure the comments made by Justice Horner in December of last year (in quashing the initial planning bid) are fed into that consultation.
"But I would agree there needs to be a capacity of at least 30,000, not only to meet the conditions and criteria of the business case, but also to attract other events, that were laid out in the business case and also part of the consultation."
In regard to potential objections to a stadium on such a scale, the Sinn Fein minister added:
"It would be an absolute tragedy if people decided to set their face against something, but they also need to have an opportunity to talk about the difficulties they have and have had around planning and I am hoping that that 12-week consultation process will be an opportunity for people to do that."
The minister's Stormont scrutiny committee has launched an inquiry into potential safety issues in the original planning bid.
The probe was triggered after an expert told the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee in April that he feared inadequate provision of exits could trigger a crush in the event of an emergency evacuation.
Paul Scott, from the Safety Technical Group, 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.
He also told the committee he was put "undue pressure" by government officials to approve plans for the new ground.
Ms Ni Chuilin has insisted she was unaware of Mr Scott's concerns before his appearance before the committee.
She has commissioned a departmental review of the project in light of the allegations.
The GAA has denied any wrongdoing and stressed it has an "impeccable safety record".
Today, the minister told MLAs that safety has always been of "paramount concern" to her department.
Ms Ni Chuilin also said she "completely refuted" any suggestion that safety concerns around the original proposal had been suppressed.