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'Good day for football' as £36m spending package is pledged by Minister to develop grounds

By Noel McAdam

New and safer grounds for football teams in Northern Ireland could be built as early as the spring of 2018 - seven years after the Stormont Executive first agreed a spending package of £36m.

A "quick turnaround" 12-week consultation period was kicked off in the Assembly with Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin proclaiming a "good day for football".

But admitting she intends hanging up her boots, the Sinn Fein Minister said it will be her successor as minister who will end up taking the agreed new grounds forward.

IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson said, however: "With £36m of investment available, this programme has the potential to revolutionise football in Northern Ireland and is a further landmark commitment to the sport following the Executive's funding of the new national football stadium at Windsor Park."

The big winner is Glentoran, which is set to receive around £10m to develop a new stadium.

Another £10m has been set aside to make existing large stadia safer, funding of around £3m for a potential national training centre and another £3m for the development of sporting centres at intermediate and junior levels.

But Nelson McCausland, chair of the committee which monitors DCAL, asked why the announcement to MLAs yesterday had been delayed and a 20-week consultation reduced to 12.

Then both the DUP MLA and the SDLP's Karen McKevitt questioned whether it will be possible to reach final decisions which could be put before the Executive before the Assembly term closes at the end of March.

Mrs McKevitt said the Ministers' statement did not include a timeframe for either the application process or the project selection process, "yet I note that all projects must be completed by March 2018".

Ms Ni Chuilin said there had been no meeting of the Executive during the summer but the £36m remained a key commitment from March 2011 and there would be a "quick turnaround" in looking at the responses to the consultation.

"This was always meant to go through in the next comprehensive spending review period. Basically, I am making sure that everything is good to go for whoever comes after me," she said.

NI21 leader Basil McCrea said it had been five years since the decision had been made "and a lot has changed since, not least our financial position. (Is the) Executive sure that, in light of other priorities, we really ought to be investing £36m in this venture?"

Ms Ní Chuilín replied: "The Programme for Government commitment still stands. I have had no feedback from anyone to suggest that this is not value for money."

Reminding MLAs that the current Assembly term had been extended by a year, she said: "I have started a lot of the preliminary works. The consultation will close on February 22. Within a few weeks, the application process will be designed and, hopefully, open for people.

"In the time between the old mandate ending and the new mandate beginning, the Department will be able to work with clubs to help them with the application process, and it will be for the new Minister of Communities to make a decision, but the decisions will be made by the department."

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