Belfast Telegraph

Legal fears stall Stormont's £36m boost for football

By Jim Gracey

A £36million raft of Government funding for local football ground improvement and development has been put on hold amid legal concerns that have arisen.

The much needed and long-awaited grant aid was due to have been announced to a fanfare by Communities Minister Paul Givan last Friday.

The Belfast Telegraph understands this has now been put back while the process undergoes stringent legal checks to ensure every detail is completely fair, equitable and watertight against any legal challenge or judicial review application from clubs unhappy with their share of the pot.

Irish FA sources say this is understandable in the light of the financial controversies that have embroiled Stormont, notably the Renewable Heat Initiative and NAMA, and that football chiefs remain confident the funding will soon be made available, albeit with some possible adjustments.

This is because Stormont advisors want to be absolutely certain the stadium funding awards are totally transparent and safeguarded against exposure to legal action or loss to the public purse. To that end it is believed the entire portfolio has been referred to the office of the Attorney General John Larkin for a definitive legal opinion on the integrity of the proposed awards.

The main concern is believed to centre on a decision taken at the outset of the process in 2011 to award over a quarter of the entire £36m release to one club, Glentoran, who have been due to receive £10m towards their planned redevelopment of The Oval.

This was made on IFA advice to the former Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, but has since been questioned by other concerned clubs through the Northern Ireland Football League.

The remainder was to be shared between the other Danske Bank Premiership clubs and some further down the football pyramid acutely in need of new or improved ground facilities.

A National Training Centre, operated by the IFA, was also on the wish list.

But on the eve of the anticipated announcement, fears now appear to have arisen of a legal objection emerging, similar to the judicial review launched by Crusaders in 2013 into the funding of the £25m Windsor Park redevelopment and, in particular, how this might unfairly benefit rivals Linfield as a club.

It was eventually withdrawn ‘in the interests of football’, said Crusaders. But the experience and the current climate at Stormont has led officials to stall the handout announcement until they are certain it is legally sound.

A source close to the discussions involving the IFA, NIFL and Stormont confirmed: “An expected announcement has indeed been shelved and the reason, we believe, is that the Department wants to be certain that the process is legally sound. That is understandable in the current mood music at Stormont.

“We believe the funding will go ahead but it could be Glentoran will receive less than they had been expecting and others will receive more. It is also possible more Government money could be added to the pot.

“The IFA will have an input as well in providing a lending stream to the benefiting clubs to help them raise their own 20 per cent of the amount of the grants they are due to receive.

“The process is so far advanced, none of the parties want to see it ending up in court and further delays resulting.

“The hope is that a final, forensic legal examination will result in the funding being released to the satisfaction of all concerned.”

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