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Classic case of think again for Ulster GAA chiefs

After the shockwave of High Court knockback, GAA chiefs face a damage limitation exercise

By John Campbell

The prospect of Casement Park being transformed into one of the most modern sports venues in Ireland would appear to be further away than ever following the High Court decision to refuse planning development for the project as it is currently framed.

Confirmation that the ambitious venture will at best be stalled and at worst be scrapped altogether has sent shockwaves through the GAA in general and Ulster and Antrim in particular.

Casement is currently closed, being made ready for the proposed re-development which has now been put on hold.

But Antrim are certainly not allowing the grass to grow under their feet in terms of confronting what newly-appointed PRO Sean Fleming describes as "a very disappointing move."

Within hours of yesterday's decision, a meeting of the Antrim executive was convened at which the implications of the High Court decision were considered in detail.

"We have considered what our options are going forward but the fact of the matter is that we do not have a Plan B," admits schoolteacher Fleming.

"Our whole focus has been on seeing Casement Park transformed into one of the best stadiums in the country but that now seems highly unlikely.

"Obviously the Ulster Council has been driving this initiative and it is a big blow to all concerned that the overall project now looks like it will be jettisoned.

"This has ramifications for the GAA but it also has implications for Antrim.

"To give you an example as to how we are fixed at present, we have matches in the Dr McKenna Cup coming up next month and we are not exactly sure where we can play them.

"To put it bluntly, we haven't had our main home venue available to us for some time and this situation is sadly not going to change.

"Then we have our Allianz League programme to fulfil and, more pertinently, if we were fortunate to get drawn at home in, say, an All-Ireland qualifier in 2015 we would really have no suitable home venue at which to stage such an important fixture.

"We have obviously tolerated this situation since Casement Park was closed but have been fortified up to now by the hope that in 2016, as initially proposed, we might have had a spanking new home venue."

It is understood that Antrim will now set up a sub-committee to attempt to plot the way forward although the main thrust for action in this regard is likely to come from the Ulster Council.

"We had all been looking forward to the refurbishment of Casement Park being stepped up but it now it looks as if it is to be halted altogether," adds Fleming.

"That's a devastating blow, a very disappointing move from every perspective."

While there is still a sliver of hope given that both the residents' body and the Project Board have been invited to consider fresh options and submit them to a further High Court hearing tomorrow, the indications are that the refurbishment of the famed venue, with £62 million of the overall cost ring-fenced from the public purse, is not considered viable

There had been optimism that the initiative would get the seal of approval despite the strong objections of the local residents' groups but now the Casement Park Project Board has been left to determine its future course of action

Tom Daly, a former Ulster Council GAA chairman, has been the driving force behind the development in his role as board chairman and has articulated that body's reaction to the decision.

"We are deeply disappointed by the outcome of the decision made Mr. Justice Horner," said Ballyshannon man Daly.

"The proposed redevelopment of Casement Park would have provided the opportunity of a world class provincial stadium for the GAA and the broader community in the heart of Belfast.

"The project would also have provided much needed economic and social benefits to West Belfast and beyond, including financial investment, new jobs, apprenticeships and community projects."

While the new stadium was envisaged as a flagship venue for the province, it was also seen as central to the ongoing development of the GAA at all levels within Antrim.

"The new stadium would have supported the GAA's plan to develop and grow grassroots gaelic games within Belfast and the county of Antrim," continued Daly.

"Over the coming weeks we will reflect on this decision and consider what the next steps are for the future of Casement Park."

The west Belfast venue has been out of use for some time as the Project Board endured a tense wait in the hope of obtaining planning approval and their anxiety has been shared by both the Ulster Council and the Antrim county board.

While the Project Board has undoubtedly been dealt a blow, there is now the very real fear that Casement Park, for so long the nerve centre of the GAA in Antrim, could fall into further disrepair.

The venue has served as the headquarters of the GAA in Antrim and has hosted inter-county matches in both hurling and football codes for decades

"It is sad to see the decline of Casement Park which for so long has been the hub of the GAA in Belfast. Hopefully some form of solution will be arrived," adds Sean Fleming.

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