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GAA authorities face big question over commitment to development of Casement Park

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Casement Park is awaiting redevelopment

Casement Park is awaiting redevelopment

SPORTSFILE

Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan

SPORTSFILE

Casement Park is awaiting redevelopment

At some stage in the coming months, the GAA will most likely be faced with a big decision on whether to commit up to €30 million towards the redevelopment of Casement Park.

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 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.

"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.

Delays

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, which was lodged in 2017.

It's expected 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 indeed justify - the balance. It could leave the GAA with a bill of €26m.

The GAA authorities are still feeling raw over the Páirc Uí Chaoimh fiasco. 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.

Question

That raises the question of whether they should proceed with the redevelopment as planned. Indeed, it was a fair question right from the start.

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 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), which has been happily housed in Clones for decades.

There is no logical business, or indeed sporting, case for building such a large stadium for one game per year, especially when Clones can 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 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 redevelopment would have been more than adequate for Antrim's needs.

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 Park 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 projects in the Six Counties would be far more practical.

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 further 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 feel-good 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.