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Suspended Sports NI chief at Casement safety probe

By Noel McAdam

Published 05/06/2015

Gallery: Antoinette McKeown
Gallery: Antoinette McKeown

The suspended head of Sport NI made a surprise appearance at a Stormont inquiry into the Casement Park project - and told MLAs she had information they will want to hear.

The inquiry by the Stormont committee into the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) project heard yesterday that Sport NI officials had warned of the safety risks for "many months and years".

Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has insisted she was not made aware of concerns over the west Belfast GAA ground's revamp.

However, officials from Sport NI said DCAL was told about the dangers - including the risk of crushing in an emergency evacuation from the stadium if it were filled to its 38,000 capacity.

In April a safety expert raised the spectre of the Hillsborough tragedy.

Paul Scott also said he had been bullied and put under "undue pressure" into passing health and safety plans despite his concerns.

Nick Harkness of Sport NI told MLAs yesterday that communications between his organisation and DCAL since March 2013 warned of a "potential for risk".

"I cannot think of words that would express more seriously a concern around emergency exiting other than the words 'panic and crushing'," he said.

The papers illustrated the "risk of potential panic or crushing and the need for the provision of additional emergency exiting".

And he said the concerns were all relayed over a series of months and years to the most senior DCAL officials.

Mr Harkness also spoke of a meeting on February 13, 2014 where he says "there was confirmation and acceptance from DCAL officials that there was an issue around emergency exiting".

NI21 MLA Basil McCrea referred to an email sent by Sport NI chief Antoinette McKeown to Peter May - interim permanent secretary at DCAL from 2013-14 - in which he said she was insistent Sport NI had provided "consistent advice on these issues for some time now".

Ms McKeown, who was suspended from her role earlier this year, made an unexpected appearance in the public gallery as the committee met.

She told the BBC it was important she was there "to ensure that Sport NI is giving a true and fair account of events in relation to Casement Park".

Pressed over whether she passed on Sport NI's concerns about emergency exiting to Sports Minister Ms Ní Chuilin, she said: "I will answer that question to the inquiry, but on the basis of the evidence that I have heard Sport NI give today, I also believe that I have evidence which the CAL committee may wish to hear."

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