Belfast Telegraph

Why Maze stadium decision is a blow for integrated sport

By Ed Curran

So the Maze stadium is dust. I should have listened to my great friend Malcolm Brodie in the first place. After he read my column supporting the Maze project, he told me I was up a gum tree. It would never happen, he said.

He was right, as befits someone who knows the world of local and international soccer better than probably any man alive. I wish I had listened to Malcolm's advice before pouring out so much undiluted advocacy for the Maze, but I don't repent for one moment what I wrote.

Northern Ireland has missed a golden opportunity to build a state of the art sports stadium on a shared community basis. Instead the future is a refurbished Windsor Park, Ravenhill with its new grandstand and more money spent on the GAA's Casement Park.

All three grounds are bang in the middle of residential areas. They inflict environmental disadvantages from car parking to crowd control on people unfortunate enough to live in the shadow of the stadia.

If I were a nearby resident I would object mightily to the sports authorities seeking to expand the seating capacity thus ensuring that even more spectators and more traffic would come down my street.

Northern Ireland will be Northern Ireland. Even though the rugby, soccer and gaelic bodies all signed up to a shared stadium at the Maze, there was always the suspicion their hearts were not in it. Did anyone doubt that given half a chance they would opt out and do their own thing? They didn't need to bother. The Stormont Executive did it for them.

Hardly had the referee's whistle blown on the big match at the Maze than the Stormont finance minister was crying foul. The figures for developing the Maze seemed incredibly high - £300m to £700m. I remember sitting in the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing and wondering how the Chinese could build an Olympic arena for much less than the proposed bill for the Maze.

How could that be? Well, the answer was simple. The figures given to the media threw in everything but the kitchen sink. The real cost of building the actual Maze stadium was less than £100m and nothing like that quoted which covered the total infrastructure and road access to the site.

Next up was the debacle of Belfast's bid to compete. Awoken belatedly by the prospect that Lisburn was about to steal a march, some of the City Hall fathers decided to grasp the forlorn and belated idea of finding an alternative site.

Some came up with the ridiculous idea that part of the much-cherished greenery of Ormeau Park could be sacrificed for a 20,000-seat stadium. More consultancy fees went down the drain.

If Belfast did have a site, it was obviously at Titanic Quarter, a gigantic sward of reclaimed land which could easily have accommodated such a development. However, unlike the Maze, a Titanic stadium came with a price for the land - possibly £100m without a brick being laid.

The Stormont Executive's approach to the Maze is yet another example of dithering, indecisive governance.

Never mind a stadium, we can barely afford to finance the swine flu health budget.

Given that Stormont is looking for hundreds of millions of further savings next year, it is hard to see if and when Windsor Park will receive sufficient funding for its future development. What a lost opportunity. I hope enough money is spent on Windsor Park to make it at least as good as a dozen modest stadia in Britain in such impressively iconic places as Bolton, Middlesborough or Reading.

Given past experience, none of us should be holding our breath on either Stormont's or the Irish Football Association's ability to deliver what the fans should have in the 21st century.

What is it with sport in Ireland, north and south, that the principals are not interested in sharing facilities?

No one who was at Croke Park since it became the temporary venue for Irish rugby could have failed but been impressed. The pity is that the venue was not retained.

The rebuilding of Lansdowne Road - impressive though it is - is not only a waste of money, but the end of my hopes and that of many thousands of other fans of ever witnessing another international. How could anyone be so stupid as to design a new stadium for 50,000 spectators in the knowledge that as many as 85,000 people have been willing customers to Croke Park? Maybe someone on the hierarchy of the Irish Rugby Football Union will answer that question.

Not being a regular gaelic football-goer, but nevertheless an enthusiastic follower of this exciting game, I am more reluctant to pass comment on Casement Park's suitability.

But given that the strength of gaelic seems to centre in Tyrone and Armagh, far beyond Belfast, and that key matches are played in inaccessible outposts such as Clones and Castleblayney, would it not make sense to develop a really top-notch arena in mid-Ulster?

Finally, can we share anything in sport? Drive into virtually any town in Northern Ireland and you will find separate rugby, soccer and gaelic facilities. You will also find that the supporters of each game struggle week in, week out to finance their grounds and their teams.

It makes no sense. They should get together and find a way of sharing. That way they might spend more of their funds on the players on the pitch rather than the bricks and mortar of their sports pavilions.

Never mind integrated education, why not try out an experiment in sharing the playing fields of Ulster? A subject for debate at the next council meeting of the Sport Northern Ireland?

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