Boost for Casement Park plans after thumbs-up by safety chiefs
A panel of experts has unanimously backed spectator safety procedures in the redevelopment plan for Casement Park.
The endorsement from the group comprising all the main emergency services comes more than three years after the former chair of the same body triggered a Stormont inquiry when he revealed his concerns about the ill-fated first design for the west Belfast venue.
The Safety Technical Group (STG), which was set up to scrutinise plans to redevelop stadia in Northern Ireland, has verified steps taken by the Gaelic Athletic Association to ensure the proposed 34,000-plus capacity stadium could be evacuated safely, with emergency vehicles able to get appropriate access.
The approval of the STG comes as planners continue to assess the second design proposal.
Even if the planners ultimately give the green light for the £60m-plus rebuild, work on the site is still likely to be some way off, as there is no minister in place to sign-off on the revised budget plan.
When, or if, a new stadium gets built, a final safety certificate will still need to be granted by Belfast City Council, with the approval of the police and Fire Service, for it to be able to host events.
But the GAA has hailed the backing of the STG in the planning process as a significant milestone toward that objective.
A spokesman for the Ulster Council of the GAA said: "As Casement Park's planning assessment process moves into its final weeks, we welcome that the Safety Technical Group has unanimously verified our work regarding the stadium's design and spectator safety."
He said the STG had been involved in "every step of the project's design development".
"We will continue to work with our dedicated team as we look forward to the conclusion of the statutory process and a formal view on the application from the Planning Service," he added.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd confirmed the PSNI, which had concerns about the original proposal, was now content with the safety aspects of the design.
"At this stage of the development process, the PSNI is assured that the issues of concern have been addressed," he said.
"We will continue to engage with and provide input to the Safety Technical Group to ensure safety, access and egress requirements are met."
The Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service said it "is satisfied with the revised proposals for emergency exiting and is continuing to engage through the Safety Technical Group on all fire safety requirements for this project".
The GAA's efforts to develop the old stadium site have been mired in controversy, with initial planning approval for a 38,000-capacity venue quashed by the High Court in 2014 following a challenge by nearby residents.
Later, safety expert Paul Scott, the then STG chair, told a Stormont oversight committee he had serious concerns about the original design, believing the stadium could not be emptied safely in an emergency and he warned of a similar situation to the Hillsborough tragedy.
His claim prompted an investigation by the Culture, Arts and Leisure committee. The GAA insisted it acted appropriately throughout the first design process. Nevertheless, given the High Court judgment, it was forced to scale back on its original design, with a second planning application submitted in March 2017 envisaging a target capacity of 34,186.
Despite the reduced size, the plan continues to face opposition from some local residents. Others however are supportive of the moves to revive and regenerate the currently overgrown and crumbling stadium site.
The Department of Communities (DfC), responding to a request from planners, has now confirmed that a safety report compiled by the Ulster Council of the GAA earlier this year has the unanimous backing of all members of the STG.
It said: "The Department for Communities received a request from the Department for Infrastructure strategic planning unit for the Safety Technical Group to verify stadium design and spectator safety information submitted by UCGAA.
"The STG responded by unanimously verifying the accuracy of the spectator safety submitted information."