Windsor Park Stadium issues must be sorted quickly, insists Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has informed the Irish FA that she wants straight answers regarding the future of the Kop Stand at Windsor Park... and sooner rather than later.
The Minister hopes to get her wish this week after the IFA last night received a preliminary report from independent engineers into the structural damage of the Kop which does not make good reading for the famous stand.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the head of DCAL revealed that if the Kop has to come down, the Northern Ireland Executive does not have the estimated £8million required in its budget to re-build it.
And she outlined new hope on the horizon for the stalled Casement Park project, stating her ambition to see work begin on the GAA stadium before the end of 2015.
Sports Minister Ni Chuilin has been a driving force for the re-development of Windsor, Casement and the Kingspan Stadiums since taking up office in 2011, handing over a total of £110 million of public money for the IFA, GAA and Ulster Rugby to see the projects through.
While Kingspan is completed, Casement Park was put on hold when last December a High Court judge quashed a decision to grant planning approval for the new stadium in west Belfast.
The refurbishment of the South and Railway Stands at Windsor remain on schedule, but the unexpected problems found in the Kop over a fortnight ago have caused ructions not only at the IFA and among Northern Ireland fans, wondering where the Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Romania on June 13 will be played, but also at Stormont.
The IFA, who held an Emergency Meeting on Tuesday evening, remain determined to play the game at Windsor.
IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson said they received the first preliminary report from structural engineers yesterday. The delay was due to a number of parties having an interest in legal and insurance ramifications regarding the stand. More reports will follow with the Sinn Fein politician keen to see them.
She said: "The longer the report takes to be on my desk, the more worried I'm getting, because the outcome could have big implications for Windsor.
"I want this issue dealt with as soon as possible. The IFA know that. I have a great working relationship with the three governing bodies, but I have a budget that my Executive colleagues have entrusted me to deliver and I take that trust seriously.
"I won't have any governing body push me away with excuses. I have specialists in my team to help me deliver the three stadiums and I don't expect the IFA to give me anything other than straight answers and facts. They know I'm waiting for the report, then we'll agree a way forward."
It looks increasingly likely that the existing Kop Stand will have to come down and be replaced with a new one.
Asked if there was money in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) coffers to pay for it, the Sports Minister said: "No. If the stand has to come down we'll have to deal with it because it will have to be replaced one way or another."
Paying for a new Kop is outside the scope of the current contract between the government and IFA. So, who is going to have to stump up the cash?
Ni Chuilin said: "That speculation will come to an end when we find out what happened to the stand and how it happened.
"When we get those questions answered maybe the question of who is going to pay for it will also be answered. I can't speculate on that right now. If it means I have to try and find that money, I will try and find it, but I don't have that money in my budget at the moment."
On the new 38,000 all-seater Casement Park, the Sports Minister said: "I am quite encouraged about the latest development. The Ulster Council of the GAA are planning to re-submit a new planning application.
"The Ulster Council received a judgement from Justice Horner in December last year and they need to honour that. That needs to be reflected to the very letter in a new application and they know that. They had a very big setback and it is how they bounce back now. I think they are doing everything they can and I look forward to them submitting a new application."
Asked if the new Casement would finally be built, Ms Ni Chuilin said: "I can see it being built and my ambition is to see the first sod being cut by the end of this year."
Last night the Minister, who expressed her understanding for Glentoran and Portadown fans fearful of not getting tickets for the Irish Cup final due to it being played at a reduced capacity Oval, hosted a Stormont reception backing the IFA's Safeguarding Children and Young People in Football app. DCAL contributed £10,000 of the £15,000 required to make it happen.
Ms Ni Chuilin said: "We place great emphasis on the protection of young people and ensuring that they are in a safe environment when participating in sport and commend the IFA who are leading by example on this app."