Belfast Telegraph

It's a capital idea to get the perfect pitch for all

The new Aviva Stadium boasts a city centre location with backing from all sporting bodies. So how did Dublin get it so right while we got the Maze stadium so wrong, asks Owen Polley

When the Aviva Stadium hosted its first rugby match last Saturday, it was hard not to feel a pang of envy. For years, plans to build a spanking new multi-sports arena in Northern Ireland were debated and frustrated. In Dublin, they simply got on with the job and constructed a magnificent venue at Lansdowne Road to replace older facilities.

The Republic's football team and Irish rugby can now look forward to taking on all-comers at their glistening home. Meanwhile, the IFA is scrambling to patch up Windsor Park by October in order to make it safe for Northern Ireland's European qualifier against Italy.

At Ravenhill, the IRFU's Ulster Branch has updated corporate amenities, but the rest of the ground is showing its age.

It's tempting to draw unfavourable comparisons and bemoan the failure of our authorities, political and sporting, to get on with things like their southern counterparts.

Politicians, in particular, are an easy target. They were, after all, unedifyingly eager to submerge the stadium issue in endless rounds of communal bickering.

Proposals to build an arena where the Maze prison once stood, just outside Lisburn, were soon mired in controversy.

Sinn Fein became an impatient advocate of the site, linking a multi-sports venue to plans for a 'Conflict Transformation Centre'. Many unionists opposed the location for the same reasons, anxious that any stadium would be adjacent to a 'terror shrine'.

The Troubles museum, source of the fiercest arguments, now looks set to get the go-ahead, while a venue shared between football, rugby and GAA is dead in the water.

On the face of it, sports fans look like they've lost out to a political tug-of-war, while down south, supporters got their stadium.

The problem with this logic is that a city centre arena, like the one unveiled in Dublin, was never on offer in Northern Ireland. The Government, backed by Sinn Fein and the DUP's former Culture Minister, Edwin Poots, repeatedly stressed that it was the Maze or nothing.

The prevailing wisdom of town-planners, developers and academics was against an out-of-town development. Examples of similar projects elsewhere also suggested that it was a bad idea, but the sports' governing bodies were told that no alternative would receive official sanction.

Served by inadequate transport links and lacking any other infrastructure, the Maze was an unlikely site for a world-class facility and a prime location for a 'white elephant'.

The IFA, the Ulster Branch and the GAA did eventually sign up to the proposals, but their backing was always lukewarm. Fans, who were, after all, to be the end users of any stadium, were even less enthusiastic.

True, the GAA fraternity, accustomed to showpiece occasions at rural venues, was comfortable enough with the Maze plans. Ulster Rugby supporters were prepared to tolerate some Heineken Cup matches played outside Belfast, but there was no appetite to relocate, wholesale, from Ravenhill.

The vast bulk of Northern Ireland football fans were still less equivocal, rejecting, in no uncertain terms, the IFA's acceptance of the Maze as a future home for the international team.

Some pundits and nationalist politicians were quick to dismiss these legitimate concerns and imply a political undercurrent to the supporters' objections.

In fact, the fans' protests voiced no anxiety about sharing facilities with rugby or GAA, nor were they preoccupied with the Maze's place in republican history. Football simply had most to lose from a bad decision, because all international home games were set to be played at the new stadium.

The Northern Ireland fans' lobby, co-ordinated by the Amalgamation of Supporters' Clubs, highlighted, with remarkable acuity, genuine difficulties with the proposed site. A series of papers were produced examining problems with the Maze, related to transport, capacity, design, location and the economy.

Supporters' groups also proved eloquent advocates of alternative proposals, designed to accommodate all three major sports, within walking distance of Belfast city centre. Their view on the transformative potential of urban sites was supported by a survey commissioned from the University of Ulster by Belfast City Council.

And it won unlikely political backing from the SDLP, which belatedly championed a city centre stadium's economic benefits.

Northern Ireland fans, and other proponents of an arena in Belfast, reflected an expert consensus that modern stadia should be sited in city centres rather than out of town. Now that the Maze plans are dead and there will not be a multi-sports stadium, the argument that an out-of-town development would be better than none at all will gain currency.

Yet what if it had been built and opened in the teeth of financial crisis? It's doubtful that the private investment required would have materialised.

The Aviva is enviable because it combines space-age design with a location in central Dublin. We should admire it and aspire to something similar.

But it certainly doesn't make a drafty, underused Maze Stadium, surrounded by vacant lots, a better idea.

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