The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has maintained it is fully committed to redeveloping Casement Park, but has admitted it is unsure as to the current financial situation for the stalled Belfast project.
Casement Park has been closed since 2013 and development plans still await planning permission six years after the last match was staged there. In October, the multi-million pound redevelopment project was placed on hold, along with another scheme concerning football stadia in Northern Ireland, amid the political deadlock in the country.
The GAA submitted its planning application to Belfast City Council for a new provincial stadium at Casement Park in February 2017. A revised planning application for a 34,500-seat stadium was entered in February 2018 and the GAA in September stated its firm commitment to the project amid problems and delays, saying there was no “plan B”.
However, with the Northern Irish government still in turmoil following Stormont’s collapse in January 2017, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities (DfC), Leo O’Reilly, in October stated the project was “not being progressed in the absence of ministers”. The same fate also hit a £36.2m (€41.2m/$47.3m) sub regional stadia programme for football.
GAA director general Tom Ryan has now outlined the organisation’s latest stance on the matter. Speaking at the launch of his annual report, Ryan said: “There has to be a stadium built at Casement Park. There has to be, Belfast needs it, it is out of action at the moment.
“We don’t really have an alternative option, and if we are to look at downsizing it, we have to go back to the start of the process again, go back through planning and new physical configuration of the stadium.
“It is full steam ahead with the project as it is configured at the moment and with the financial commitment that we have made to it. The little frustration with it is that we can’t control the outcome of it at the moment. It is all behind the scenes with local government in Northern Ireland and we have to wait and see the outcome of that.”
Belfast-based newspaper the Irish News said that when the project was costed almost a decade ago, the estimate for construction was put at £77.5m. The GAA agreed to contribute £15m, with the remaining funds coming from the public purse.
While no updated cost is available, it is almost certain to have increased. The News said the project has had to go through separate design phases at a cost of £3m apiece, with a further £4m spent on administrative costs and pre-construction work.
The GAA has also come under the spotlight recently owing to overspend on the redevelopment of Pairc Úi Chaoimh. Ryan added: “The financial package dates a few years back, but obviously there are cost implications since then with issues like building inflation. Belfast needs a new stadium and we remain very much committed to the project, but nothing can be done until the planning issue is finalised.”
Meanwhile, Ryan also said that the GAA is fully committed to plans to redevelop Walsh Park stadium in Waterford. He added that the association is not considering other sites for a potential new stadium.
“We want to invest something in Walsh Park, we want to get to a stage where they’re able to play there,” said Ryan. “Waterford people deserve to have championship games played in the city. There’s a plan to do up Walsh Park and to invest significant funds in that and we’ll play our part in that with Munster and along with the county themselves. Whether it’s this year or whether it’s in subsequent years, I can’t, hand on heart, say at this point.
“It’s directly one for Munster Council rather than for myself but certainly the will is there to make sure that games can be played in Walsh Park. And when I say Waterford, I do mean Walsh Park. There was talk about other venues or possible facilities in the city there over the course of a few months towards the end of last year. We did look actually at other alternatives and we did look at other possible investments.
“The amount that would have to be spent before you’d even see anything above the ground was prohibitive. It will be possible for us to do a good job on Walsh Park but they won’t need 30,000 or 40,000. It will be possible for us to do something that is appropriate to the needs of the county and that they can afford.”