Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Stadium row a Dickens of a tale

Northern Ireland's National Stadium has become a political football and, as Victoria O'Hara reports, a decision by Belfast City Council has added another twist to the debacle

It has become a tale of two cities - Lisburn and Belfast. And, like a Charles Dickens' novel, the question about where to build Northern Ireland's national stadium has developed into a saga that's long, complex and full of drama.

More than two years have passed since the row over whether to base Ulster's first multi-sports stadium in Lisburn or in Belfast first erupted.

During that time, conflicting interests and contradictory reports have surrounded the issue, leading to confusion amongst the public and sports fans. The Strategic Investment Board and Sports Minister Edwin Poots are convinced that the Maze is the only viable location. But Belfast City Council is still fighting for the stadium to be developed in the city. Earlier this year, after a University of Ulster study favoured the in-town site, leisure committee chairman Bob Stoker said Belfast was "never properly considered" by the government.

He added that the report provided "irrefutable independent evidence of the need to go back to the drawing board".

This week, the council took their own advice. Proposals for Belfast by two private developers - the Sheridan Group and Durnien.com - have been scrapped by Belfast City Council.

Durnien.com produced a self- financing, £67m plan. The Sheridan Group proposed a £40m, 25,000-seat stadium in exchange for the development rights to the Maysfield Leisure Centre site. The council kicked both plans into touch. Instead, they are now spending £140,000 more on a business case to earmark all potential sites for development across the city - including the possible upgrading of existing sports facilities. The council believes the report will strengthen their case and persuade the government to stop their pursuit of the £80m Maze site.

But Sinn Fein, who favour the Maze site, slammed the report as a "waste of tax payers' money", adding that there is still no site, no plans and no developer for the stadium. Despite some acknowledgement from unionists that the council's execution of the process has been "pathetic", they are still happy to put the taxpayers' money where their mouth is and pursue the stadium.

But the question remains: Why was this report not carried out at the start?

The reason? Lack of communication, foresight and planning, one council source admitted.

Now, after scrapping all previous reports, all city sites are back on the table, leading the council back to the start of a process which began years ago. Technically, this could include Ormeau Park.

But fears of losing a green space led to protests and public meetings supported by both unionists and nationalists.

Another problem is the Maze has the approval of the three main sporting bodies, the GAA, football and rugby - Belfast has not. In July, the sports minister said the GAA had ruled out proposed stadia on both the Belfast North Foreshore site and the Titanic Quarter.

Political history has also caused problems with the development of a "shrine" to the 1981 IRA Hunger Strikers at the former prison site. Amid the focus of one new stadium, it is possible the new business report could recommend injecting millions of pounds into the redevelopment of the separate sports facilities in Belfast. Casement, Ravenhill and Windsor Park could all receive a facelift. In fact, on the same night Belfast City Council backed the business report, they also passed an application for a £6m refurbishment of Ravenhill.

Making the right decision is vital for both sports fans and the surrounding businesses. But, irrespective of what the business report recommends, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure could still ignore it and push ahead with the Maze - the ball is in their court.

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