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Ulster GAA has to become city slickers

By Declan Bogue

Ryan Feeney, the outgoing Head of Public Relations of the Ulster Council, has claimed that the GAA will be in "big trouble" if it does not secure a significant foothold in the cities of Belfast and Derry over the next 20 years.

With population shifts becoming more urbanised, the GAA is in danger of becoming adrift of its base, believes Feeney.

"The problem is that the GAA traditionally is a very rural organisation. It's very, very hard to define how the organisation works in an urban context," he said.

"It's an issue for Belfast, Derry, Cork, Dublin. It's an issue for Craigavon which has the third-largest population size in Ulster.

"The strategic priority for the GAA in Ulster is Belfast and Derry. If we don't crack those two cities over the next 20 years we are in big trouble."

Feeney, who leaves the Ulster Council to take up a similar role within Queen's University, states that the process of winning hearts and minds has already begun in Belfast with a number of ambitious developments.

Top of the list is the redevelopment of Casement Park, insists Feeney, while a number of other developments are set to spring up in the near future.

"Casement is the jewel in the crown, the first proposal in making Belfast a GAA city," he said.

"For example, Belfast City Council and Ulster GAA have recently unveiled a £13 million investment in capital facilities in this city.

"We have money coming from the council and from the GAA which will see Musgrave Park, Cherryvale Park, the Cliftonville site and Woodlands all being upgraded to new GAA facilities that will enhance our games."

There are additional plans for new pitches in Falls Park and at Ormeau Park, which is set to open a new 3G pitch this week.

Feeney believes there is an appetite for Gaelic games in Belfast and points to the size of two clubs within inner-Belfast - Bredagh and St Brigid's, whose memberships number over 3,000 each.

However, he feels there is a missing ingredient that a redeveloped Casement Park, which could host provincial deciders and All-Ireland quarter-finals, could bring.

"The problem is that we haven't been able to get the sense of ownership from Belfast to the GAA," he explained.

"Casement was about that; a provincial stadium. Ulster finals, All-Ireland quarter-finals, All-Ireland finals being held in Belfast gives people a sense of ownership."

He says that a clear blueprint in developing Gaelic games in large cities exists in the regeneration of Dublin GAA.

"If you look at the very clever and successful strategy and investment that has been put into Dublin over the last 15 years, Belfast needs a plan like that," continued Feeney.

"It needs investment, it needs focus and Derry needs the same.

"In the next five to 10 years, half of the population of Ulster will live in one of those two places. Everybody is going urban."

Feeney leaves the Ulster Council after nine years, having fulfilled a number of various roles.

That Casement Park, by some distance the most ambitious and difficult task, has not yet been delivered is of some frustration to Feeney, who explained the benefits that a new stadium can have, with a new proposal set to go forward in the New Year.

"I will always be a supporter of the project, I believe in the project, it is the right thing to do," he said.

"A provincial stadium in Belfast is about bringing Ulster finals back to Belfast in a post-conflict situation. It is a good plan, and has very honourable intent.

"This is also about the social and economic generation of Gaelic games in Belfast.

"It is a regret that the project is not being moved forward as quickly as it could. A lot of work has been done on various fronts to bring it forward.

"There has been a significant level of opposition to it. Some residents have very legitimate views that have been taken on board and continue to be taken on board. I don't feel that the GAA has got a fair crack at the narrative."

Feeney denied anything improper in their dealings with those that opposed the development of the new Casement Park.

"We tried our best to accommodate, work and engage. We did it for two years and were unable to reach consensus," he claimed.

"There was nothing perverse in that, nothing underhand. It was all transparent. Unfortunately, the narrative seems to be that the Association did something wrong. It didn't.

"It wanted to build a provincial stadium on the site of a current provincial stadium.

"My view is that a lot of hard work went into that and we will hopefully see in the next year, it's a big year in 2016 that the team will move forward. I will be supportive of that."

The Ulster Council have appointed Rory Miskelly as the project director, who will work alongside Ulster GAA's Danny Murphy and Tom Daly at board level.

Miskelly has an impressive track record, having been project manager of the Titanic Centre and Kingspan Stadium redevelopment, and Feeney revealed that an extensive community consultation is due to take place in early 2016.

Belfast Telegraph


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