Casement Park legal challenge rejected

Work is set to resume on getting the long-delayed Casement Park project off the ground after a legal challenge against the major redevelopment of the Belfast-based Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) stadium was rejected.

The decision of Northern Ireland’s former Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, to grant planning permission for the redevelopment of Casement Park went to the High Court following a challenge from the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association (MORA).

Planning permission had been granted for the redevelopment of Casement Park in July, with work on a new 34,578-seat Gaelic sports stadium having been due to begin in the first half of 2022. Planning permission was given after Mallon recommended the project for approval in October 2020.

However, MORA sought a judicial review of the planning permission, with some of those living in the immediate area of the stadium concerned at the scale of the estimated £110m (€129.2m/$138.6m) project.

Belfast’s High Court in March ruled that Mallon’s decision would be scrutinised, based on the fact that she did not seek wider consent for the project from the Northern Ireland Executive. The case came to a conclusion yesterday (Tuesday), with Mr Justice Humphreys ruling that despite the identification of a technical breach of a legal requirement to table the proposal for Executive Committee consideration, other Stormont ministers were fully briefed and Mallon retained legal authority to grant planning permission.

“This was not a ‘solo run’ by the Minister in that she kept her Executive colleagues informed as to her intentions, which received widespread support, and expressly alluded to regionally significant planning applications such as Casement Park,” said Humphreys, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

“There is no evidence that any Minister disagreed with the decision to grant planning permission for Casement Park.”

MORA’s lawyers had argued that Mallon had acted in breach of the Ministerial Code, preventing them the protection to hold the plans up to further scrutiny. However, the court was told how the project was uniquely earmarked in the New Deal New Approach agreement which led to the restoration of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration in 2020.

Based on this document, Mallon was judged to have acted lawfully in how she handled the planning application and informed her Stormont colleagues. MORA’s lawyers claimed the group’s opposition was only to the scale of the redevelopment project, and its potential impact on the local area. They claimed planning procedures were “usurped” by an agreement with Ulster GAA for the redevelopment described as a “hulking mass”.

The new stadium, which was expected to take two to three years to build, will include a bowl design and a range of mixed-use facilities. The design has been developed by architecture firm Populous, with the revamped Casement Park to become Belfast’s biggest stadium.

Casement Park has been closed since 2013 and development plans had awaited planning permission seven years after the last match was staged there, and after a fresh application was made in February 2017.

The project was first proposed in 2012, but has since stalled due to legal challenges from local residents and concerns over safety. An original vision for a 38,000-seat venue was overturned by a court in 2014 after it was also challenged by MORA.

Reacting to yesterday’s court verdict, the GAA said its position on funding for the project had not changed. When the plans were announced in 2013, the GAA pledged £15m towards the scheme, with the Executive adding a further £62m. The most recent estimate for the project in 2019 placed the total cost at £110m, up from the original £77.5m, and this is likely to have increased again since then.

Ulster GAA head of operations, Stephen McGeehan, said: “We’ve been given a commitment that the budget shortfall will be met by the Executive whenever that is in place, and we’ll start those conversations with elected representatives as soon as this afternoon.”

Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey, added: “The focus needs to switch (to) finally getting Casement Park built, and that’s the job that I will take on in the coming days and weeks.”

Image: Populous