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Casement Park: Field of dreams turns into a nightmare for Ulster GAA

By John Campbell

The Ulster GAA Council may have lost the battle in terms of gaining a new-look Casement Park in the short term but it certainly intends to win the war.

Scarcely had the formal pronouncement been made yesterday to the effect that the granting of planning permission for a 38,000 all-seater stadium had been quashed than defiance replaced disappointment and resolve was quickly substituted for regret.

What for some time has been a dream project has descended into something of a nightmare scenario but GAA chiefs hope that this will prove to be only of temporary duration.

Yet Tom Daly, a former chairman of the Ulster Council who is now chairman of the Casement Park Project Board, candidly admits that the ambitious refurbishment scheme will be substantially delayed.

"At this point in time I expect that what has happened this week could add about a year to the process of getting construction started," points out Daly.

"There are a number of people who are within their rights to hold a certain position on this but equally there are those whom we will never satisfy no matter what we do."

Daly is already in the vanguard of a renewed drive to make the proposed new stadium become a reality - it is understood that a fresh planning application will be made in 2015 - and he plays down the suggestion that the GAA did not listen to residents' grievances.

"I will not accept that we did not listen to their views. In contrast, we listened to them very, very carefully and we made changes on what we heard," insists Daly.

"While we are disappointed with this judgment we are fully committed to transforming Casement Park and building a provincial stadium for Ulster which will provide a longstanding legacy for gaelic games as well as significant, social and economic benefits."

And the Ulster Council is unlikely to deviate substantially from its initial stadium blueprint when it returns to the drawing board after Christmas.

"We welcome that the judgment found the siting, size and scale of the Casement Park development were not contrary to planning policy," points out Daly.

"There is a strong resolve within the GAA to submit a new planning application in 2015 which will again follow the due process and scrutiny of the Department of the Environment."

Daly maintains that this is very much in keeping with the GAA's Strategic Requirement of developing a fit for purpose, modern provincial stadium for Ulster at Casement Park.

And the fact that confirmation that the £62m from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will remain on the table while a new planning application is prepared will serve to provide further impetus for the Ulster Council in its bid to attain its objective.

"Ulster GAA strongly welcomes the continued commitment of funding by the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Executive, for the project. We are also grateful for the ongoing commitment and support of the central GAA," states Daly.

"We remain committed to working with the local community to see the completion of a world class stadium which has far reaching benefits for all."

There were indications even before yesterday that the Ulster Council was already bracing itself for round two of the drive to get the green light for work to commence on the ambitious stadium project.

Indeed, the GAA's commitment to refurbishing Casement Park on a lavish scale is, if anything, stronger than ever. This resolve is complemented by that of the Antrim County Board which must now remain without a flagship venue for the immediate future instead of contemplating, as had been initially envisaged, throwing open the doors of a new-look stadium in 2016.

And the Ulster Council's renewed bid to secure planning permission will undoubtedly be closely monitored by those tasked with preparing the formal bid to bring the 2023 World Rugby Cup to Ireland.

Casement Park has already been ear-marked as one of the grounds for the competition and while, if completed, it is unlikely to be accorded any of the higher-profile fixtures involving the leading rugby nations nonetheless its inclusion in the list of venues would mark another significant step forward for Ulster sport.

Ulster GAA chiefs are at pains to emphasise that Casement Park is being re-developed as a major provincial ground and not just a county ground with the plan being to bring provincial finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals to the venue.

This means that the Council will seek an overall capacity of at least 32,500, this being the normal attendance figure at provincial finals which are currently hosted at Clones.

But it is recognised that an attendance figure such as this at games is very much the exception rather than the rule - a factor that weighed heavily in arriving at yesterday's judgement, it seems.

Meanwhile, Antrim officials can only watch and wait as the dawn of a new season adds to their sense of frustration as they cling to the hope of an ultra-modern home.

"Antrim will work closely with the Ulster Council. The hope is that the Casement Park concept will come to fruition in due course," says county PRO Sean Fleming.

Belfast Telegraph

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