It was to be the GAA’s showcase in Ulster: a completely revamped £77m stadium at Casement Park in West Belfast that would seat 38,000 fans. It would take over from Páirc Naomh Tiarnach in the border town of Clones in County Monaghan as the venue for Ulster football finals. Now a judge at the High Court in Belfast has found that the planning application approved by the North’s Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan was “irretrievably flawed“.
The judicial review that lasted thirteen days heard that defects were also identified in the environmental survey, with no assessment of the impact on local residents of extra stadium facilities such as conference suites, bars, restaurants and car parking. A further hearing is expected later this week to decide the final outcome of the case.
The new stadium was set to be included in the list of GAA venues to be used as one of the Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Hugo McNeill, the chairman of the bid, last month said that the Casement Park upgrade was “crucial” to the Northern Ireland component of its proposal.
Chairman of the Casement Park Project Board, Tom Daly, said they were “deeply disappointed” by the decision. “The proposed redevelopment of Casement Park would have provided the opportunity of a world class provincial stadium for the GAA and the broader community in the heart of Belfast. It would also have provided much needed economic and social benefits to west Belfast and beyond, including financial investment, new jobs, apprenticeships and community projects. Over the coming weeks we will reflect on this decision and consider what the next steps are for Casement Park”, he said.
The redevelopment of Casement Park is part of the Northern Ireland Executive’s policy to upgrade the three major sports grounds in Belfast – soccer’s Windsor Park, Ulster Rugby’s ground at Ravenhill and the GAA stadium at Casement. Three new stands have been constructed at Ravenhill. Work is ongoing on modernising Windsor Park, the home of Irish League club Linfield and the Northern Ireland international team.
I note that former Clones resident Darach MacDonald says he is not going to gloat about this outcome, which he has predicted several times to general disbelief. However, he thinks somebody needs to explain, and quickly, how a planning process described as ‘irretrievably flawed’ was presented to GAA fans and the general public as a fait accompli. From the outset, this was a politically tainted and contrived vanity project to siphon off public funds on a sectarian pretext for an inappropriate development in a place where it was not wanted, he said.
Meanwhile, the existing venue for the Ulster Football Final, the provincial showpiece for the sport, has been relegated to a state of neglect pending redundancy (without floodlights or other investment since the early 1990s), disparaged and dismissed by those who pursued their ‘Field of Dreams’. As a life-long supporters of Gaelic games, Darach says he is “disgusted and impatient for answers”.