On June 10, 2013, Casement Park hosted an uneventful Ulster SFC quarter-final.
The winners, Monaghan, kicked more wides (17) than points (11) and the losers, Antrim, played the last half-hour with 14 men.
A week shy of nine years on and that remains the last game of any kind played at the ground, now dilapidated and overgrown; a crumbling monument of deep frustration for Antrim and Ulster GAA.
It’s been a rough nine years.
Without a home venue, Antrim’s county teams have been forced to play in nearby Corrigan Park.
But it is the symbolism of a decaying Casement, the absence of a base in Belfast, that has chipped and chiselled at the soul of Antrim GAA.
Yesterday’s Belfast High Court ruling brings hope.
After excruciating delays and unfathomably complicated legal objections, the prospect of action, of Antrim moving home to a rebuilt Casement Park, lives again.
In March of 2011, two years after scrapping plans to build a multi-purpose stadium on the site of the old Maze Prison near Lisburn, the Stormont executive allocated £138m for upgrades to Belfast’s three major sports venues: Casement Park, Ravenhill and Windsor Park.
Ravenhill, with its two new seating areas at the Memorial and Aquinas ends of the stadium and fully rebuilt main stand, was completed in April 2014.
In October of 2016, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness were amongst the attendees as Northern Ireland hosted San Marino in a FIFA World Cup qualifying fixture, the first game at the developed Windsor Park, with its new seating capacity of 18,500.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino unveiled a plaque to mark its opening.
Seven years on from that, Casement Park sits derelict; its pitch overgrown and terraces dilapidated and ghostly. So any residual wariness about this latest resurrection of the project will be in direct proportion to the tortuousness of the project.
Plans, objections, delays. Repeat, repeat and repeat again.
Each shaft of light at end of the tunnel has been blacked out by a fresh legal challenge.
- In 2014, a previous planning approval for a 38,000-capacity venue was quashed by the High Court following a challenge by the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association (MORA).
- A revised planning application was submitted subsequently and approved by former infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon, who lost her seat at the recent Assembly election.
- Just two days before the expiry date for appeal, MORA sought leave to seek a judicial review, claiming the decision to grant planning permission was unlawful.
Through all of this, MORA insisted they weren’t against the redevelopment of Casement Park, but only at a preferred ground capacity upper limit of 20,000.
But on this, the GAA was unwilling to budge, having already agreed an initial reduction.
Casement Park last hosted an Ulster football final in 1971.
The hope is it will do so again after the rebuild and the significantly lowered capacity would make these plans unfeasible.
MORA’s latest appeal was on constitutional grounds.
They argued that Ms Mallon should have sought the approval of other executive ministers under the terms of Stormont’s ministerial code.
Delivering judgment in the case at Belfast High Court yesterday, Mr Justice Humphreys said all arguments advanced by MORA on planning issues were “without merit”.
Antrim GAA rejoiced.
The next trick will be funding the redevelopment.
The majority of funding was expected to come from the Northern Ireland Executive, who pledged €74m when the original estimated cost of the project was €92m, with a contribution of around €18m already committed by GAA.
In 2020, the GAA’s financial director Ger Mulryan confirmed that the GAA’s commitment remained in place.
However, some of those figures are no longer accurate.
Last year, the DUP’s Paul Givan, who was First Minister at the time, suggested the final bill could be more than £140m (€165m).
With inflation, the actual cost of the rebuild may easily rise again.
These, however, are more tangible concerns for the project than the ones they faced in the High Court.
A statement on the stadium’s official website described yesterday’s ruling as “truly momentous for the Gaels of Antrim and Ulster and the GAA at national level”, adding the decision was “clear, unambiguous and emphatic”.
“We can now, finally, plan for the delivery of our provincial stadium and the last remaining project within the NI Executive’s Regional Sports Stadia Programme.”
For Gaelic games in Antrim, that can’t come quickly enough.