Clear division at heart of Northern Ireland government over Casement Park redevelopment funding

Clear divisions have emerged at the heart of the Stormont government over the funding of the redevelopment of Casement Park.

It comes after a multimillion-euro package for Northern Ireland projects was announced on Tuesday by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The funding from the Irish Government includes €50m - or £42.7m - for the redevelopment of the Belfast GAA stadium, which is earmarked to host Euro 2028 matches.

However, uncertainty remains over further funding for the project.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said the project represents an opportunity to unite people across Northern Ireland through sport.

“This is a project that can leave a legacy for all sporting codes, particularly in relation to Euro 2028," the Sinn Féin MLA said.

"This is something we should think is a great opportunity for us all."

Meanwhile the DUP deputy First Minister Little-Pengelly said the Executive needed to look at the issue carefully.

She said: “Every decision will have an impact on other decisions. We do need to get to a point where we understand fully what the full costs will be in relation to this."

European football’s governing body Uefa confirmed last year that the UK and Ireland will jointly host the Euros.

As part of the successful bid, Casement Park was listed as one of the stadiums where games will be played.

But the site is derelict and plans by the GAA to redevelop it with a 34,000 capacity have been mired in controversy and hit by delays.

The project has been delayed by a series of legal challenges and was further complicated by the lack of a functioning Executive at Stormont for two years.

The redevelopment has also been hit by rising costs, with an original projected price tag of £77.5 million now believed to have spiralled much higher.

The GAA is part-funding the project but has yet to reach an agreement with Stormont on how to cover the multimillion-pound shortfall. As well as the contribution from Dublin, the UK Government has indicated it is prepared to offer additional funding.

Ms Little-Pengelly said: "There is an allocation there, there was a commitment to this project. The Communities Minister (Gordon Lyons) will be bringing forward some proposals.

“All of our considerations will be done with fiscal responsibility and on a fair and equitable basis.

“That is the responsibility we all have as ministers to the public and in the use of taxpayers’ money.”

Ms O'Neill welcomed the Taoiseach's funding announcement as "hugely positive in terms of getting us to the point where we have all the finances in place."

She continued: “I hear a lot of talk about figures, what it will cost, what it won’t cost.

"Let’s focus on getting the tender let, lets focus on actually getting the project built, and let’s focus on making sport something that unifies us all. This is a project which can have such a legacy for sport, not just for the GAA but much wider than that.

“This is a project that can leave a legacy for all sporting codes, particularly in relation to Euro 2028. This is something we should think is a great opportunity for us all.

“Let’s use sport to unite people in the same way that education can unite people.”

Ireland’s deputy premier Micheal Martin said that funding the cross-border initiatives was about having “practical connectivity” and developments that would be of the “mutual benefit” to people living on the island of Ireland.

“We all collectively want to host the Euros 2028,” he told RTE Radio.

“It’s a shared objective between the UK, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, in terms of what would be a wonderful tournament and it would be a terrible shame if Belfast was not in a position to host matches in that tournament.

“In my discussions with (Northern Ireland Secretary) Chris Heaton-Harris, I think we always made it clear that we were there to support Casement Park. I don’t see that it should be an issue of contention.”

Asked about what the overall cost for Casement Park could be, Mr Martin said: “It’s never wise to speculate on the price of any project before it goes to tender because very often the speculated cost could become the floor price.”

Asked whether he thought the funding from UK Government was secure, he said: “My sense was that it was secure, that it was an important part of the broader picture, if you like, increasing and improving sports infrastructure across Northern Ireland.

“I don’t want to speak for Chris on this, but in my conversations, he’s an avid sports fan himself having been the soccer referee. So I think he has a broad view in terms of improving sports facilities more generally and that would include Casement.”

Asked about the UK Government’s funding commitments by reporters in Belfast, he said: “I think as part of a broader programme of sports investments by the UK Government into Northern Ireland, that the indications were yes, that Casement Park would also be a recipient of such funding.

“But, again, we’ll await further engagement on that matter. I think it’s a matter for the British Government to clarify its position in relation to Casement at this particular point.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.