Tuesday 23 April 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Ominous for Casement as costs raise viability doubt'

How much can GAA commit to a project that's 40pc above original estimate?

Casement Park which was supposed to be completely revamped into a new stadium but the project is in doubt. Photo: Sportsfile
Casement Park which was supposed to be completely revamped into a new stadium but the project is in doubt. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Antrim GAA wouldn't be noted for boat-rocking, but there came a time last August when frustration over Casement Park prompted them onto a medium that was only in its infancy when the redevelopment plans for the west Belfast stadium were announced.

It can be said without fear of challenge that Twitter has made more progress (certainly in business terms) over the last decade, but then it wouldn't be difficult since nothing has happened with Casement Park.

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Not in the building sense anyway. Instead, it has remained idle since closing in 2013, a derelict, weed-strewn eyesore, hosting only memories of a proud past.

"How many children will miss out playing @Casement Park? We deserve a county ground #gaa. It would be nice to sort out a way forward. #LeftBehind". Thus ran the Antrim County Board's plaintive tweet last August. At that stage, a decision on a revised planning application, submitted in February 2017, was still awaited.

Clarity That remains the case and with doubts over whether, in the absence of a Government, civil servants can make a decision on such a major project there's no clarity on what happens next. The Ulster Council were told by the Department for Infrastructure last week that responses would be issued as soon as possible. Given that it's over two years since the second planning application was lodged, it's easy to understand why scepticism remains.

The redevelopment of Casement Park has been a complex process. Planning permission for a 38,000-capacity stadium was granted in 2013, only to be quashed by the High Court a year later.

Following lengthy consultations, a revised planning application, with capacity reduced to 34,000, was submitted. The cost was put at £77 million (€89 million), of which £62m (€72m) would come from public funds, with the GAA contributing £15m (€17.5m at today's rates).

The most dramatic, if not exactly unexpected, revelation in the Ulster Council's statement last Friday was that the revised cost had zoomed to £110m (€127m).

"The prolonged nature of the planning process is stalling the project's progress and is also impacting its budgetary estimate, which is now likely to be in the region of £110m.

"With every day of delay pushing out the earliest possible start for the project, it is imperative that government departments discharge their responsibilities as expediently as possible to mitigate against increased costs," said Tom Daly, chairman of the Casement Park Project Board.

It's impossible to be specific about costs in advance of planning permission being granted, but after the Páirc Uí Chaoimh and National Children's Hospital debacles, the suspicion will be that Casement's final bill comes in at more than £110m.

Even assuming it's not, who will pick up the £32m shortfall, which is almost 40pc higher than the first estimate? Even if the Government contribution remained at 80pc, as originally promised, it would still leave a balance of £22m (€25.5m) to be met by the GAA.

That's €8m more than planned for a stadium whose capacity would be rarely required. Understandably, the GAA want to have a modern stadium in Belfast, but does it need to have a capacity of 34,000? The senior football final is the only Ulster game that needs such capacity and since Clones has hosted the province's big occasion for many years, why move it to Belfast?

That's not an issue for now and, for better or worse, the GAA is committed to redeveloping Casement Park, as originally agreed with Government when deals were also done with Ulster Rugby and the IFA to upgrade their facilities.

The problem now is that nobody has any idea when redevelopment work can begin in Casement Park. And with costs increasing all the time, how high will they eventually reach?

The controversial absence of a Northern Ireland Executive for so long has added to the uncertainty over a project, which was originally due to have been completed by 2015.

The GAA's Central Council has, so far at least, backed the Casement project but that could change once they are faced with the final bill.

The Páirc Uí Chaoimh fiasco, complete with runaway construction costs and a stadium which already needs a new pitch, has sounded loud alarm bells over stadium redevelopment.

Croke Park contributed €20m to Páirc Uí Chaoimh but it seems likely that the requirement will be even higher for Casement Park.

Does that make sense or would the money be better spent on a smaller stadium in Belfast and heavy investment in coaching and other facilities in the city and the rest of Antrim.

Opened in 1953, having cost £101,000 (€117,000), Casement Park last staged an Ulster football final (Down v Derry) in 1971.

It celebrated its 65th birthday amid eerie silence last year and despite all the optimistic talk about it returning as a state-of-the-art facility, it seems a long way off right now, if indeed it will ever happen.

Leitrim lift is story of the year so far

It’s important to enjoy good times without dwelling too much on how long they will last. Leitrim footballers and their supporters are in that territory now in a season which is already a huge success for them.

Who would have thought that they would be heading for Celtic Park on St Patrick’s weekend with promotion to Division 3 already secured even before they face Derry?

After that, they have Waterford at home and then Derry again in Croke Park in the Division 4 final.

It’s a special few weeks for Leitrim and, by all accounts, the entire county is relishing the special feeling that comes with success.

It doesn’t always have to be about the superpowers, something that tends to be forgotten. Of course when Leitrm’s league adventures are over, they will be face the harsh reality where they would, most likely,  have to beat Division 1 trio Roscommon, Mayo and Galway to win Connacht.

A secondary championship for Leitrim and their likes can’t come quickly enough.

Tenacity pays off for Westmeath

Carlow remaining in Division 1 of the Allianz Hurling League and, in the process, sending Offaly hurtling down the relegation chute attracted much of the attention last weekend, but what about Westmeath, who have finally escaped from Division 2?

Dogged persistence paid off and they can now look forward to spending the spring of 2020 among the big boys. Their promotion was well overdue. Indeed, they must have wondered if the gods would ever smile on them after enduring some heartbreaking setbacks.

They lost last year’s 2A final to Carlow, having suffered similar disappointment against Kerry in 2015.

They won the 2A final in 2016 but lost a promotion/relegation play-off to Laois, who had finished bottom of 1B. It has been quite a journey for Westmeath, but at last they have been rewarded.

And here’s a question: how many of the top teams would bid for Westmeath full-back Tommy Doyle if a transfer system operated in hurling?

Few of the Division 1 teams are better served at No.3.

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