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Ulster council sure that £76m Casement project will avoid any delays

By John Campbell

The Ulster Council is poised to make a "significant announcement" before Christmas in a move calculated to dispel speculation that the Casement Park refurbishment project could be subject to delay.

The Council, in tandem with the Antrim county board, has been pressing ahead with ambitious plans for the proposed 38,000 all-seater stadium that would be among the best in the country when completed.

Under the direction of former Ulster Council Chairman Tom Daly and secretary Danny Murphy, a team has worked feverishly to take the project to an advanced planning stage and it is hoped that formal approval for the venture will be forthcoming shortly.

"We are pressing forward with the scheme and the plan is to have the stadium ready for the staging of the 2016 Ulster final, which we hope will be the first of many major matches to be fixed for the new-look venue," states Ulster Council Chairman Martin McAviney.

"We will be making a significant announcement in relation to the stadium before Christmas and hopefully this will provide a further insight into the whole refurbishment process.

"A lot of preliminary work has been taking place in the background and the Council is hugely committed to this scheme which is one of the most ambitious ever undertaken in the province."

But while the Ulster Council presses forward, the Moreland Owenvarragh Residents' Association (MORA) is today keen to clarify its position in relation to the project.

The Association has already demanded an inquiry into the refurbishment initiative having provided details of their objections to the Department of Environment's Planning Service in Belfast after the Ulster Council had submitted its own proposals to the same body.

And while the residents' body continues to strongly oppose the scale of the £76.4 million rebuilding of the venue in accordance with the plans which have been submitted, it is not against the concept per se.

Residents' Association spokesman John Crossey, the former Down hurling manager, is anxious to outline his body's current stance on the project.

"We believe that the plans as they stand are too ambitious. An all-seater stadium capable of accommodating 25,000 to 30,000 fans would suffice.

"This would mean that the height of the stands could be lowered and that the stadium would not look totally out of sync in the area," maintains Crossey.

"Under the proposals, it is felt that the new stadium will have a negative visual and environmental impact on the Andersonstown area.

"We feel that a rather smaller stadium would still serve the GAA well."

Residents are also concerned about the possible frequency of big matches and concerts and associated traffic problems while their representative body contests the view expressed that the stadium when completed could provide economic benefits from the area.

"We think the venue could become a one-stop shop with food and other services franchised out which might not be helpful to local businesses," claims Crossey.

But the Ulster Council's Director of Public Affairs Ryan Feeney refutes the suggestion that anything other than a 38,000 capacity stadium will fulfil the governing body's needs.

"The fact of the matter is that some 8,000 people were unable to be accommodated at this year's Ulster final between Monaghan and Donegal because the capacity of St Tiernach's Park, Clones has been reduced to 31,500," points out Feeney.

"As things stand, too, the Ulster Council is not in a position to host All-Ireland quarter-finals because of stadia restrictions. This is something that we feel the new-look Casement Park will address."

And Feeney believes that there is a desire on the part of many within the GAA to see Ulster finals hosted once again at Casement Park.

"This was the venue for the provincial finals up until 1972 but the decision was taken to move our flagship annual fixture to Clones because of the ongoing civil unrest," points out Feeney.

"It makes sense that the second biggest city in Ireland should be capable of hosting major matches.

"This would provide further testament to what the GAA is all about.

"It is an acknowledged fact that bigger crowds than ever are coming out to our games as was evidenced by the record attendances at the recent Ulster club championship fixtures and it is absolutely vital that these followers are accommodated in the best possible surroundings with suitable ancillary amenities provided."

The Ulster Council will shortly draw up a new five-year Strategic Plan that will take it up until 2019, but right now the major emphasis will be on ensuring that Casement Park is restored as one of the country's leading stadia.

"What we are doing is trying to provide a ground that will be fit for purpose for the next 40 years, that is the vote of confidence we are giving to Casement Park. It will be a venue of which Antrim and Ulster can be justifiably proud," adds Feeney.

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