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Casement gets green light for £76m stadium upgrade but protests go on

By Declan Bogue

iT has been many years in the discussion, meeting, planning and negotiating processes, but Tom Daly – Chairman of the Casement Park Redevelopment Project Board and former Ulster GAA President – wore the look of a contented man at yesterday's announcement of approval of Casement Park by Environmental Minister Mark Durkan.

As Ulster President from 2007 to 2010, Donegal man Daly had been closely involved with the proposed cross-community stadium at the site of the Maze Prison. When he was succeeded by Martin McAviney in the role, McAviney kept Daly at the driving seat of the project.

When Daly's term as President was over he stepped back into his day job as a senior manager with the Health Service Executive, but he admits that every spare moment went into getting the Casement Park project over the line.

Put to him that his level of dedication and volunteering was admirable, he replied, "Well I am a GAA man, I have been involved in the Ulster Council for a long time and have been involved in negotiating the funding package with the Northern Ireland Executive for this stadium.

"I have similar responsibilities in my job as well in terms of maintaining relationships with various statutory agencies right and managing the interface between our own staff and the design team."

The latest landmark for where the GAA finds itself stems from the Strategic Review conducted by the Association in 2000. Back then, a key area identified in progressing Gaelic games was the need for modern, all-purpose stadiums in each province, to compliment Croke Park.

The Ulster Council had signed an intention to commit to the Maze Project, before the idea was scrapped by Gregory Campbell MLA as Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister.

After returning to the drawing board and considering numerous alternatives, the Ulster Council eventually settled on the idea of rejuvenating the west Belfast venue and secured over £61 million in funding from the Northern Ireland Executive, with another sizeable contributions to come from the GAA of over £16 million.

Daly added that in recent days they had cause to feel that everything would turn out fine.

"We got an indication that there would be announcement. From the soundings we had been taking, we had become quite confident that we would get the planning application," he said.

There are certain conditions attached to the approval, most of them standard conditions that apply to event-management, but given that Ulster GAA intend to put in place a Stadium Management Committee that owes something to the system in place for Croke Park, they are confident that will not cause them too many headaches over the process.

Should local residents wish to take objections further there is always the possibility of a judicial review, but that would challenge Minister Durkan's decision, not the stadium design.

On a human level, the news delighted Daly.

"Not for professional reasons, but for GAA reasons. It is a fantastic project. I think the players and GAA supporters deserve this," he said.

"I am very strongly of the view that what Ulster Council have done in relation to family tickets and promoting the concept of families attending the games, that's going to receive a great fillip from this."

"Every seat has the maximum C-Factor in terms of the view. Every seat in the stadium will be equally good for a child or an adult of the playing field and so on.

"I think that because the public have been so good to the GAA at a provincial and county level, I think we owe them this. When I was growing up in our family, the four boys played football and went to matches, while the girls played music and did Irish dancing. It's entirely different now. You can see it in cars going to games, families of boys and girls going to games."

Speaking at the announcement launch, Minister Durkan tackled issues surrounding the stadium. Earlier he had a fraught moment when some residents entered the playing surface of Casement Park where a photocall was taking place to voice their displeasure.

"There has been a degree of controversy, it's unavoidable, around this decision," he began.

"But I weighed up the objections made by those opposed to the stadium, against the undoubted benefits that this stadium will bring – not just in Belfast, but to Ulster and to the north as a whole."

He also added a splash of humour, adding, "There was quite a bit of onus on what conditions I might attach to any plan and one that I had to try to work in but it didn't happen, was to ensure that Derry should be there every July!"

Work could soon begin on the venue, with the Ulster Council predicting that some of the 2016 Ulster Championship could be hosted there.

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