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Will nobody shout stop as €30m set to be wasted on Casement's white elephant?

Martin Breheny


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Casement Park has been left idle for over six years despite its redevelopment project being granted initial planning permission in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

Casement Park has been left idle for over six years despite its redevelopment project being granted initial planning permission in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Casement Park has been left idle for over six years despite its redevelopment project being granted initial planning permission in 2013. Photo: Sportsfile

In the coming months, the GAA will most likely be faced with a big decision on whether to commit up to €30m towards the redevelopment of Casement Park.

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Failing that, the project - first mooted 11 years ago - will either be abandoned or scaled down by two-thirds. Having agreed some years ago to contribute £15m (€18m), the GAA showed a strong commitment to Casement Park, but time and unforeseen events have dramatically altered the landscape.

Most of all, the projected cost has zoomed up, taking the GAA's exposure with it.

With 80 per cent of the original cost promised from British Government funds, the GAA decided to pay the remainder.

Despite the many setbacks the project has encountered since initial planning permission was granted in 2013, the GAA never wavered in its commitment to build a 34,500 stadium. Capacity was originally set at 38,000, but had to be reduced in a revised planning application, which became necessary after the initial one was overturned. Even then, the GAA held firm.

"There has to be a stadium built in Casement Park. It's full-steam ahead with the project as it is configured at the moment and with the financial commitment that we have made to it," said GAA director-general Tom Ryan this time last year.

The GAA's financial commitment (€18m) was based on a total cost estimate of £77m (€92m), of which £62m (€74m) was to come from public funding. Last March came the inevitable news that the estimate had soared. Now it was £110m (€131m), 40 per cent more than the original figure.

With no Northern Ireland Assembly in place for three years, leading to delays in many projects in the six counties, the GAA are still awaiting a decision on the second planning application, lodged in 2017.

It's due shortly and, if favourable, will be followed by a review of the costs and who pays what.

That's where it gets serious. How much, if any, of the additional costs will come from the public purse? If it remains at £62m, then the project will have to be scrapped in its current form as the GAA couldn't afford - or justify - the balance.

Public funding for the original estimate was around 80 per cent, so if that were to apply to the new figure, it would leave the GAA with a bill of €26m.

That's if the final estimate came in on the latest budget, something that's most unlikely at a time of rapid inflation in building costs. So it would be no surprise if the GAA's exposure was close to €30m, even if 80 per cent came from public funds, something which is by no means certain.

The GAA authorities are still feeling raw over the Páirc Uí Chaoimh fiasco where, after contributing €23.75m from Central and Munster Council funds, a massive deficit emerged later.

Originally costed at €70m, it inflated to what was thought to be a final estimate of €86m. However, there was consternation when Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna said it could soar to as much as €110m. That was rejected by the Cork County Board, and following detailed analysis a concluding figure of €95.8m was announced last February.

Even if that's accurate - and sceptics remain to be convinced - it's still way over initial estimates and indeed €10m more than projections put forward as late as 2017, the year the stadium reopened.

Chasing

Given that chastening financial experience, the GAA have every reason to fear that Casement Park will end up costing them a whole lot more than originally envisaged.

That raises the question of whether they should proceed with the redevelopment as planned. Indeed, it was a fair question right from the start. The same applied to Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Emotion and symbolism run deep in the GAA psyche, especially at local level, so refusing to redevelop Páirc Uí Chaoimh as a 45,000-capacity stadium didn't arise.

It should have. Where was the need for such a big stadium in a province which already has three other large venues in Thurles, Killarney and Limerick?

How could it make business sense to spend €100m on a stadium, whose capacity would only be required once or twice a year? And not every year either. The same issue arises with Casement Park. A capacity of 34,500 would be required only once a year for the Ulster final.

There is no logical business, or indeed sporting case, for building such a large stadium for one game per year, especially when Clones can happily cater for the Ulster final.

However, once 80 per cent of the cost was promised from public funds as part of Northern Ireland regional development there was never a real debate on whether the GAA should commit so much money to Casement Park.

Opting against it would have been portrayed as a betrayal of the GAA in the six counties, particularly in Belfast. That's despite the fact that a 10,000 Casement Park revamp would have been more than adequate for Antrim's needs.

It wouldn't have required the original £62m (or considerably more now) public funding, but the GAA could have put forward a very credible case as to why they were entitled to the full amount for investments in other projects across the province.

Instead, they stuck with the Casement plan, seeing it as a mighty symbol of the GAA's presence in Belfast. Building a smaller stadium and spending the rest of the money on other grounds/facilities/projects in the six counties would be far more practical than insisting on a massive Casement Park.

Is there no bottom or top line on how much the GAA will pay? Ulster Council secretary Brian McAvoy acknowledged in his recent annual report that delays with planning will lead to increased costs.

As of now, the GAA have no idea of the extent of financial exposure they face, yet they continue to back the project.

Just as redeveloping Páirc Uí Chaoimh on such a grand scale made no practical sense, Casement Park doesn't pass the logic test either, especially if the GAA face a bill of up €30m.

And for what? So that there's a feelgood factor about the GAA in Belfast and Antrim? A 10,000-stadium and serious investment in clubs around the rest of the county would achieve far more than a 34,500 (mostly empty) stadium in Belfast.

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