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Casement Park fiasco big kick in teeth for Sinn Fein

By Nelson McCausland

Published 17/03/2016

Culture Minister at Stormont Caral Ni Chuilin
Culture Minister at Stormont Caral Ni Chuilin

The Casement Park saga continues to rumble on and on. One of the three Northern Ireland sports stadiums is complete and another is almost complete, but the third stadium, Casement Park, is still a derelict site.

There is no agreed design and no planning permission. The site lies deteriorating and not one brick has been laid.

That is a major blow for Sinn Fein, which had hoped that it would be completed and open by Easter 2016 - the centenary of the 1916 Easter rebellion. So what has gone wrong for Sinn Fein and the GAA?

Originally the project was being developed by Sport NI, but at the start of 2012 the Sinn Fein minister took it away from Sport NI and brought it into her department and, therefore, under her direct control.

Around the same time she appointed a new special adviser, Declan Kearney, and then, on March 5, 2012, Kearney explained the importance of the Casement project in the pages of An Phoblacht, the newspaper of Sinn Fein.

"One of the most important decisions in recent sporting history is the proposal by the GAA to redevelop Casement Park," Mr Kearney wrote.

"In mid-February the Ulster Council in Armagh and the National Management Committee in Dublin accepted a letter of offer from Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin to build a new 40,000-seater stadium in west Belfast."

He referred to "the hope of an economic stimulus to contribute to transforming the quality of life for the people of west Belfast". That was important for Sinn Fein as the party looked forward to the next Westminster and Assembly elections.

Its critics in west Belfast were arguing that, after so many years in the Assembly and Executive, it had failed to deliver for the constituency that had been represented by party president Gerry Adams for most of the previous 30 years.

Casement Park was to be their answer to that criticism.

However, Kearney also argued: "For Gaels across Belfast, it means much more. It is a chance to cast off the history of oppression, where Casement Park was once occupied by the British Army."

Kearney was quite explicit in claiming all the credit for Sinn Fein: "That progress has only been made possible because Sinn Fein has used its political strength in the local Assembly to help to secure £61.4m for a new provincial stadium for Gaelic games in Ulster."

However, four years on from that report, the GAA and Sinn Fein are no nearer to their vision of a new 40,000-seater stadium.

The alarm bells were sounded by the safety experts in Sport NI and by the members of the safety technical group (STG), who argued that it would not be possible to evacuate such a large stadium safely in the case of an emergency, because most of the exits are on one side of the site. As a result the Sinn Fein minister reconstituted the STG and then drafted in a new chairman.

Perhaps she was hoping that a new STG would produce a different opinion.

But earlier this week there was another shock revelation as a result of an FoI request. On January 28 the new STG held its third meeting, but prior to that, on January 14, safety experts from the three emergency services, Fire and Rescue, Ambulance and PSNI, met and agreed a position paper.

They concluded that the streets around Casement were so narrow that they could only accommodate somewhere between 11,000 and 18,000 people in the case of an emergency. That falls very far short of the 38,000-capacity mentioned recently by a senior figure in the GAA.

The whole saga is an embarrassment for the GAA and Sinn Fein. Instead of delivering a new Casement Park "under her watch" as she promised, Caral Ni Chuilin has presided over an utter debacle.

Post-election, there are some big questions for Sinn Fein and the GAA.

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