Saturday 3 December 2016

Shock as €30m Páirc Uí Chaoimh grant facing EU probe

Rebuild plans in chaos in major blow to Rugby World Cup 2023 bid

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

The €70m redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh could be delayed by up to 12 months
The €70m redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh could be delayed by up to 12 months

The GAA's ambitious plans to completely revamp Páirc Uí Chaoimh are in disarray, the Sunday Independent has learned. The famous old ground is in the early stages of a massive €70m redevelopment but an unexpected intervention from officials in Europe has alarmed the GAA and put the proposed new stadium under threat.

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Last month, the Cabinet signed off on a €30m grant to the Cork County Board for the project but this is now being investigated by the EU. It's understood the grant was flagged in Europe because of its size, and the government will be quizzed by officials in Brussels, who are concerned that it is in breach of very strict rules around State aid.

This investigation is a lengthy process and even if the government gets the green light to hand over the money in full to Cork County Board, it could be delayed by up to 12 months.

Ireland has fallen foul of the European Commission's State aid rules in the past and is currently awaiting the outcome of an investigation into its relationship with Apple amid claims that the tech giant was offered a favourable tax deal here. These claims have been strenuously denied and defended by the government, which is now set to mount a strong defence against this latest intervention.

On the weekend that a hugely successful Rugby World Cup in England and Wales came to an end, this news is a blow as Ireland prepares to launch its bid to host the competition in eight years' time.

The GAA supports the IRFU's bid and Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Casement Park in Belfast were central to it, but there are now major question marks over both.

Planning permission for a proposed £77m redevelopment of Casement Park was halted by a court ruling last year. And just last week it emerged that one of the key figures in the project, Ulster GAA official Ryan Feeney, is taking up a new position with Queens University Belfast.

Meanwhile, there remains considerable local opposition to the plan to revamp the stadium into a modern 38,000-seater venue in time for the Rugby World Cup.

The GAA lobbied the government for significant input of taxpayers' money into the project in Cork, citing the potential benefits of the Rugby World Cup to the country as part of its argument. The association also pointed to the potential value of a new, ultra-modern 45,000-seater stadium to the local economy in Cork. Reports estimated that the project would create up to 400 jobs and provide a €22m boost to the area.

Other GAA stadia which may form part of the IRFU's bid are Semple Stadium in Thurles, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, Pearse Stadium in Galway and McHale Park in Castlebar. The GAA had been expected to seek further government input to carry out improvement works where required to support the IRFU bid.

Croke Park and Munster Council sources said yesterday they weren't aware of any substantial hitches to the redevelopment plan. Both suggested any questions raised were a matter for Cork County Board.

However, it's understood that senior GAA officials are seeking urgent meetings with government representatives for clarification and reassurance following this dramatic eleventh-hour EU intervention.

The €30m grant had been initially announced last year by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, but concerns over the size of the award were subsequently raised. Earlier this year it emerged that officials in Howlin's Department had expressed concern over a cost benefit analysis submitted by the Cork board to support the grant request. Concern was also flagged in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, although it had no direct role in the process.

But while the Cork board dealt with these concerns and secured final confirmation that the money would be handed over in full just last month, beginning with an initial payment of €10m, its projected estimates around revenues from concerts are understood to have formed part of the EU's unease. Cork County Board and Department officials now face a lot of legwork over the coming months if they are to satisfy EU concerns.

It's not clear if work on the ground will continue in the interim. The Cork board did not respond last night to questions submitted by email.

Earlier this year, before this latest setback, the GAA's director general, Paraic Duffy, said he was confident that both Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Casement Park would be redeveloped in plenty of time to bolster Ireland's World Cup bid.

However, the clock is ticking for Ireland: the deadline for confirmation from unions to tender is June next year, and the announcement of the winning bid will be made in May 2017. The Cork board had planned to reopen Páirc Uí Chaoimh by July 2017.

Sunday Indo Sport

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