Belfast Telegraph

Casement, like Red Sky, farce no one's to blame for

Minister Caral Ni Chuilin
Minister Caral Ni Chuilin

By Eamonn McCann

Confronted last Friday with a damning report on the Casement Park redevelopment scheme, Minister Caral Ni Chuilin accepted responsibility, rejected blame and said that she won't be resigning.

The report from the Project Assessment Review panel of the Cabinet Office made 20 recommendations for change. The most telling from the point of view of Ms Ni Chuilin's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) was that she must appoint a new "senior responsible officer" to take over from the DCAL deputy permanent secretary who has filled the position until now.

Another recommendation was that the chair of the Safety Technical Group, Paul Scott, should be replaced by someone with expertise in "mediation and facilitation", rather than in the technical practicalities of the project.

The review had been undertaken in response to a claim by Mr Scott to the DCAL committee at Stormont in April that, in spite of his safety concerns, he had come under "undue pressure" from within the department to agree to give the scheme the go-ahead. He accused officials of "bullying".

The panel found so little trust left between DCAL, Ulster GAA, Sports NI and other "stakeholders" that outside counselling was required: "An independent mediator will be needed to reset working relationships."

It was reported on Monday that Mr Scott had been told by Sports NI, for which he works, that he's not to make further public comment on the matter under pain of possible disciplinary action.

The report was published late last Friday afternoon, the traditional time for release of news which official bodies don't want widely publicised. Rather than distributing copies or emailing the report to newsrooms, DCAL summoned journalists to its head office in central Belfast, where they were given an hour to read the text and then almost seven minutes to pursue with the minister any issues arising from the report and its 20 recommendations.

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Ms Ni Chuilin said: "I resent the fact that anyone could even hint that I am trying to bury this report."

The minister interpreted the document itself as meaning that she had been "open, transparent and professional" throughout. The GAA took a similarly creative approach, accepting a recommendation for drastic change in the way it handled its role - appoint a new, full-time project leader and invest "significant additional resources" - before hailing the report as a "clear vindication of the premium which the GAA attached to the development of a new safe stadium".

The GAA had joined with DCAL in opposing residents of the area, who had mounted a court challenge to the stadium plan. Both the association and the department stressed the urgency of the project: the provision of a 38,000-capacity stadium was key to winning the staging of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, it was suggested.

Given the objection already upheld in the courts, it is highly unlikely that the stadium, when and if it is completed, will hold 38,000 spectators. As well, the time-scale for completion stretches ever further into the future.

Following the residents' success last December in having planning permission quashed, the association seemed confident that this would prove no more than a blip. There would be a new application before the planners by the middle of this year, it declared.

Now, though, according to the panel, it will take 12 months from the repair of relations between the various stakeholders before any new planning application can be submitted. It is likely to take another 12 months for formal approval. That's if there are no further court challenges.

It is hard to see a sod of turf being turned on the site before the second half of 2017.

The project has been costed at £77m. But past experience, current delays, administrative chaos and inflation over a longer-than-anticipated period suggest that taxpayers will be lucky if the final bill doesn't top £100m.

This has been an outright disaster for which nobody is prepared to accept any blame.

All that said, it must also be said that Ms Ni Chuilin has precedent on her side.

Proof positive that nobody up at Stormont need take the blame for anything came in the DSD/DUP/Red Sky affair, on any rational assessment a more serious matter than the Casement imbroglio.

But this hasn't stopped DUP DCAL committee member William Humphrey from gleefully upbraiding Ms Ni Chuilin. If there's ever a prize for the shiniest brass neck at Stormont, Mr Humphrey will be a shoo-in.

All this results not necessarily from incompetence, or bad faith, on anyone's part, but from the structure of the Stormont system, by which ministers are answerable to and can only be replaced by their own parties.

So then, in such circumstances, why shouldn't they act the maggot?

Belfast Telegraph


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