Belfast Telegraph

Has the sun set on Casement Park's 38,000 all-seater dream?

By Nevin Farrell and Alan Erwin

The GAA has been left considering the future of its plans to expand Casement Park into a world class 38,000-seater stadium after a court ruling left them in tatters.

The association said it was thinking about its next steps for the west Belfast venue after a judge ruled that the Environment Minister acted unlawfully in approving the plans.

Mr Justice Horner held that the decision-making process around Mark H Durkan's decision to grant planning permission for the £77m Casement Park redevelopment was "irretrievably flawed".

While the ruling on a case brought by residents living in the streets close to the Andersonstown Road ground does not kill the plans off completely, it is a significant blow.

As residents celebrated the decision, the GAA ruled out submitting plans for a smaller stadium as a compromise.

Mr Justice Horner identified failures in the environmental impact assessment of increased facilities and an unrealistic reliance by the Department of the Environment (DoE) on an existing 32,600-capacity at the now closed stadium as a baseline for the project.

With far fewer spectators normally attending matches at the current ground, the judge found that the effect of bigger crowds on the surrounding roads network was not properly examined.

He said: "This was both an inadequate and unlawful approach and it meant that the likely significant effects of full capacity attendances at the ground were not and could not be adequately assessed."

The judge also pointed to the minister never being told of PSNI concerns about safety issues around having 38,000 fans attending an event.

However, he did not quash the decision to give the green light to the redevelopment.

Instead, lawyers for the DoE, the GAA and a residents group who mounted the legal challenge are to make further submissions on the appropriate remedies.

Mr Justice Horner's verdict followed one of the longest judicial review applications to come before the courts in recent years.

As well as hearing 13 days of legal arguments, the judge visited the site in person to help in his assessment of the project's potential impact on the surrounding neighbourhood.

Police claims that an emergency evacuation of a full house at the redeveloped ground could take up to 47 minutes were also explored. But counsel for the Planning Service warned during the hearing that GAA fans will be stuck with a crumbling and decaying venue if the decision to approve a new arena is quashed.

The £62m of public money allocated to the redevelopment would then be returned to the Stormont Executive for spending elsewhere, the court heard.

Lawyers for the GAA insisted the sporting organisation would not abandon Casement Park if the planning permission is overturned. The delay in starting full construction on the new Casement Park stadium is said to be costing £60,000 a week.

Roads Service did not carry out a traffic impact assessment of a capacity 38,000 crowd coming into the area, the court heard. Afterwards Mr Durkan said he remained hopeful that "there might be a positive outcome to this".

"I made what I said at the time was the right decision," he said.

"I still stand by the decision I made on sound planning grounds.

"However, the judge has decided that is not the case."

He added: "I'm hopeful that when parties reconvene on Wednesday that common sense will prevail. This is a disappointing day, not just for me and my department, but also for the GAA."

Tom Daly, chairman of the Casement Park Project Board, said: "We are deeply disappointed by the outcome of today's decision by Mr Justice Horner.

"The proposed redevelopment of Casement Park would have provided the opportunity of a world class provincial stadium for the GAA.

"The project would also have provided much-needed economic and social benefits to west Belfast and beyond. Over the coming weeks, we will reflect on this decision and consider what the next steps are for Casement Park."

The GAA's provincial body, the Ulster Council, said a 38,000 capacity was needed for the staging of Ulster Senior football finals and All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Mr Daly ruled out a "compromise" 25,000-seater stadium. When asked if the Casement project was dead in light of the court ruling, he said it was too early to make any decisions.

Background

Casement Park is one of the biggest stadiums in Northern Ireland and acts as the home of the Antrim GAA hurling and football teams. Named after Sir Roger Casement, it is located on the Andersonstown Road and is the biggest GAA venue in Belfast.

The GAA had planned to build a significantly bigger, 38,000 seater stadium to replace its ageing facilities - but residents living nearby launched legal action amid fears of their homes being dwarfed by the new stadium. The Association has ruled out a compromise 25,000 seater stadium.

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