Casement Park development emails prove NI Sports Minister's aides knew about safety risks
Documents obtained by the Belfast Telegraph have challenged the Northern Ireland Sports Minister's assertion that she was unaware of safety concerns over the new Casement Park stadium prior to 2015.
The information acquired by the Belfast Telegraph shows three of Caral Ni Chuilin's senior aides attended meetings where issues about the west Belfast GAA stadium were raised, or were copied into relevant correspondence.
Those officials have since left Northern Ireland's Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).
Ms Ni Chuilin previously insisted she only became aware of concerns over the proposed redevelopment when Sport NI safety expert Paul Scott reported them to a scrutiny committee in April last year.
During Assembly question time last month she rejected claims that she knew about the issue in 2012. "The first I was made of aware of any such allegations or concerns was when they were raised by Mr Scott at the culture, arts and leisure committee in April 2015," Ms Ni Chuilin told MLAs.
But among hundreds of documents seen by the Belfast Telegraph is an email dated April 30, 2013, in which DCAL's programme architect requested information from Mr Scott so that the minister was "in a position to address residents' concerns and clearly articulate the rationale for the stadium exit strategy".
Another email, dated December 18, 2013, from the same architect to Mr Scott, states: "DCAL, UCGAA (the GAA's Ulster Council) and the project delivery team are fully aware of the need to develop the emergency exiting strategy having engaged with STG (Sport NI's safety technical group) comprehensively on safety and comfort matters throughout the design process to date."
This email was also copied to Noel Molloy, the then director of NI Stadium Developments, and Ciaran McGurk, stadium programme manager - two of Ms Ni Chuilin's principal aides, as well as Steven Trainor, stadium programme development officer.
On June 14, 2014, the Belfast Telegraph published an interview with Sport NI's chief executive Antoinette McKeown in which she stated: "I think the current design (of Casement Park) has run into a problem in relation to emergency exiting."
No one at DCAL, including the minister, has gone on record as having read this, and Ms Ni Chuilin claims that no one at Sport NI made her aware of the issues.
Planning permission for the stadium was overturned in December 2014 after opposition from local residents. Notwithstanding this, the emergency exiting problem remains unsolved.
NI21 MLA Basil McCrea, who sits on the DCAL committee, said Ms Ni Chuilin should quit if it was shown she was aware there were issues. "If it transpires the minster did know, she has misled the committee and should resign," he added. "If it is true and she doesn't resign, I'll look at whatever avenues are possible to deal with the matter."
Mr McCrea told how he believed the emergency exiting issue should have been the minster's top concern. "I'm confident the department was aware of the problem, that it tried to manage the situation and that the minister was looking for plausible deniability," he said.
"But that doesn't wash. At the heart of the project was a contained site with access on only one side, so emergency exiting should have been her top priority. The buck stops with the minister. It's the biggest capital project in her department and she should have been aware of issues that might prevent it. Paul Scott offered advice and was supported by other officials from Belfast City Council, the PSNI and the Fire Service."
Former Sports Minister Nelson McCausland, who now chairs the DCAL committee, said he found it "beyond belief" that Ms Ni Chuilin was kept in the dark over a major safety issue.
"Are we really to believe that, over the course of several years, three of the minister's most senior officers either didn't know about the issue of emergency exiting or chose not to inform her of serious safety concerns relating to the redevelopment of Casement Park?" he asked.
"Did they not pay attention at the meetings? Did they not read their emails? Did they not think this was something she should know about?
"Correspondence shows information was requested in order for the minister to assuage residents' concerns. Did she not get this information? At best, the department isn't fit for purpose. Either the minister didn't know because information was kept from her or she did know and didn't believe it was a major concern."
In a response to questions from the Belfast Telegraph, a DCAL spokesman said: "The minister has consistently made clear, and reiterated it to the committee last Thursday, that she was not aware of allegations in relation to concerns around emergency exiting at Casement Park prior to Mr Scott's appearance at the committee on April 30, 2015.
"The Belfast Telegraph interview of June 14, 2014 does not suggest there were any concerns in relation to safety around exiting at Casement Park."
We also asked the minister to confirm to whom Mr Scott reported and who made that decision, to which the spokesman replied: "Paul Scott is an employee of Sport NI."
Last Thursday the minister, who is approaching the last few weeks of her term, walked out of a committee meeting examining the safety controversy after refusing to answer any questions.
Prior to exiting she read an extensive statement in which she said: "As previously stated, I was not aware of allegations in relation to concerns around exiting at Casement Park prior to Mr Scott's appearance at this committee on April 30, 2015."
The recurring issue over safety at the proposed 38,000-capacity stadium was whether a full Casement Park could be evacuated in around eight minutes in the event of an emergency.
Mr Scott, whom the documents show was consistently arguing that the existing stadium designs did not allow for this and whose main point of contact was the DCAL architect Carl Southern, took a grievance case against Sport NI's senior management, claiming attempts were made to bully him into changing his mind and approving the proposals.
Last April Mr Scott, who is currently on sick leave, told the committee that the pressure had come from both the department and the GAA, a claim the latter strenuously denied.
He said: "The pressure exerted upon me has been so significant that I felt (in December 2014) that I had no choice but to raise a complaint of bullying and harassment against DCAL officials with the CEO of Sport NI."
He claimed efforts had been made to "coerce" him into signing off on the project, and that he was told he would be removed from his post as chair on the safety technical group.
Asked if he felt he was being sidelined, he agreed, adding: "Sidelined and gagged."
Work on the new stadium was due to begin in early 2015, and almost £6m of public funds have already been poured into the project.