Why GAA will need to rethink if it hopes to get Casement Park redevelopment across the line
The GAA has come forward with a new proposal for the redevelopment of Casement Park in west Belfast. This is the latest episode in what has become a very long-running saga and one that has still a long way to go.
Casement was part of a package that involved support for the refurbishment or redevelopment of three stadiums: Windsor Park for football, Ravenhill for rugby and Casement Park for GAA.
Windsor Park and Ravenhill are now finished and looking really well, but the plans for Casement Park ran into difficulty over a number of issues.
There was opposition from many local residents because of the impact of a much bigger stadium on their quality of life and concerns from experts about the safety of the proposed stadium in the case of an emergency.
Residents living beside the ground were concerned that the proposed stadium would tower over their homes. They were also concerned about suggestions that, when large crowds were attending events, there might be a need to “close down” the surrounding streets.
A safety technical group, which included safety experts and representatives of the emergency services, were concerned about the time it would take to evacuate the stadium in the case of an emergency.
At one point the stadium designers had even drawn up a plan that involved purchasing a number of nearby houses and knocking them down to provide wider routes out of the arena in case of an emergency.
The new plans which have just been produced involve a reduction in capacity from 38,000 to 34,500 and some redesign.
But, from what I have seen, the new stadium would still tower over the houses in the surrounding streets.
Both football and rugby were more modest in their aspirations and avoided the sort of problems that halted the previous Casement plan.
I would hope that, even at this stage, during the pre-consultation, the GAA will think again.
Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have got themselves into all sorts of difficulties over Casement.
Sinn Fein in particular has been the target for local criticism.
So, why did it try so hard to get Casement over the line?
It was aware of a growing discontent in west Belfast and saw the Casement development as a means of dampening down that discontent.
It claimed that it would become an economic driver in the area and transform west Belfast in terms of employment and prosperity.
It also intended to deliver a new Casement in time for 2016 and the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
That was why Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said that it would be delivered “under her watch”. However, the centenary is past, Caral is out of office and Casement is still sitting derelict.
The importance of Casement for Sinn Fein was set out by Ciaran Kearney in An Phoblacht on March 5, 2012.
He reported that the GAA had “accepted a letter of offer from Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin to build a new 40,000-seater stadium in west Belfast”.
Kearney even described the redevelopment as “one of the most important decisions in recent sporting history”.
He also wrote about it being “an economic stimulus” for west Belfast and then claimed that: “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.”
Sinn Fein strategists were probably anticipating that work would be under way by 2014 in time for the local government elections, and completed by 2016 in time for the centenary and the Assembly elections.
However, as the centenary year of 2016 comes to a close the site remains derelict and the British Army has been replaced by Japanese knotweed.
The GAA seems intent on moving forward with a new plan. But that must respect the rights of its neighbours and the safety of its spectators.