'No Casement' banner in the stands during the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast.
Casement Park

How has Belfast's overgrown Casement Park become the latest pitch battle around cross-border funding?

Many unionists say they would prefer no Euro 2028 games to be hosted in Northern Ireland if Casement is the venue of choice.

PREPARATION WORK FOR the long-planned redevelopment of Casement Park in Belfast began this week.

This was closely followed by an announcement that the Irish government is to provide funding of €50 million towards the redevelopment.

The stadium, named after Easter Rising leader Roger Casement, is located on the Andersonstown Road in nationalist west Belfast. 

It was the home ground of Antrim hurlers and footballers until its gates closed in 2013.

Plans to redevelop Casement were first put forward in 2009 and the works were due to begin at the end of 2013, with a view to having the new stadium open by September 2015.

A redeveloped Casement is now part of the successful bid that will see Ireland and the UK jointly host the Euro 2028 football tournament.

However, news that the Irish government was to allocate €50 million towards the Belfast stadium has caused some consternation on both sides of the border.

Some in the Republic argue that funding could have gone towards grass-roots sporting developments, while many unionists in the North say they would prefer no Euro 2028 games to be hosted in Northern Ireland if Casement is the venue of choice.

While a redeveloped Casement will host games during Euro 2028, it will otherwise be primarily used for GAA games.


What has delayed the redevelopment and who is funding it?

In 2013, funding was agreed to by Stormont to redevelop the main stadiums for rugby, soccer, and Gaelic Games respectively.

Money was given to the Irish Football Association to redevelop Windsor Park, to Ulster Rugby for work at the Kingspan Stadium (then Ravenhill), and to the GAA for Casement Park.

Some £62 million was agreed for the redevelopment of Casement Park.

However, in the decade since, the project has been hit with a series of delays and legal challenges.

workmen-at-casement-park-gaa-stadium-in-belfast-northern-ireland-contractors-have-begun-assessing-planned-ground-works-at-casement-park-ahead-of-the-long-delayed-redevelopment-of-the-stadium-the-mai Workmen at Casement Park stadium in Belfast on Monday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It has also been hit with rising costs – the original projected price tag from almost a decade ago of £77.5 million (€90m), is now believed to have spiralled to £220 million (€257m).

GAA and UK government allocation

Speaking last October, DUP MP Gregory Campbell called on the GAA to “up their game” if Casement Park is to be redeveloped.

He also called on the Irish government to “pony up” around €35 million – €50 million was allocated this week.

Campbell noted that the other stadiums where money was granted to in 2013 were “redeveloped some years ago”, while “Casement Park ran into legal complications which went to the High Court”.

“So we’re not against the redevelopment of Casement Park, but the GAA need to pay the proportionate amount that they agreed to pay, which initially was £15 million (€17.3m) when the overall cost was about £80 million,” Campbell told RTÉ.

“Now that it’s almost doubled, we would expect the GAA to pay roughly double what they initially agreed to pay and hopefully they will agree to that.”

dups-gregory-campbell-mp-left-with-party-leader-sir-jeffrey-donaldson-at-the-meadowlands-arena-magherafelt-as-counting-continues-in-the-northern-ireland-assembly-election File image of DUP MP Gregory Campbell with party leader Jeffrey Donaldson Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Campbell added: “If the GAA up their game to £12 or £15 million  (€14-17m) more than they originally envisaged because of the doubling of costs, and if your own government can pony up for another £25 or £30 million (€29-€35m), that should release sufficient money from the Treasury in London.

“Who on Earth would complain about that?”

However, the GAA has said this original contribution of £15 million is at the limit of what it can contribute.

Brian McAvoy, Ulster GAA chief executive, today told BBC’s Good Morning Ulster that “there is a limit to what we can do”.

McAvoy added: “That’s why we’ve gone to the Irish government – we would have little scope for moving beyond that [£15m contribution] but I think we did well here.

“Obviously the ball is very much in the court of the UK government and the executive, that’s really where the ball lies now.”

While a DUP figure has suggested a price tag of £220 million, McAvoy said “the cost of the stadium cannot be made until a contractor is secured”.

“A contractor appointed later in the year – not in a matter of weeks,” said McAvoy.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said yesterday that he had not seen final projected costs for the stadium yet, and that this would determine how much the UK government would contribute.

He said when that happened, the government would determine “what the range of possibilities will be”.

Speaking today, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said his “sense” was that UK government funding is “secure”.

He added that it’s not “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.”

DUP MLA and deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly today cautioned that Stormont needs to “understand fully what the full costs will be in relation to this” and that “all considerations will be done with fiscal responsibility and on a fair and equitable basis”.

Elsewhere, first minister Michelle O’Neill today said the Casement project could unite people in the North.

“I hear a lot of talk about figures, what it will cost, what it won’t cost,” said O’Neill.

“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.” 

Unionist opposition

A poll carried out by the Belfast Telegraph last November found strong opposition within the unionist community towards redeveloping Casement Park.

The poll found that 69% of unionists are against Casement being used to host Euro 2028 matches.

When given the choice of Northern Ireland hosting Euro 2028 games in Casement Park or hosting no fixtures at all, 61% of unionists said they would prefer for no Euro 2028 games to be played at all in the North.

In addition to this, 69% of unionists said they wouldn’t go to Casement to watch the Northern Ireland football team if they were to play a fixture there during Euro 2028.

No nationalists polled were against Euro 2028 games being played in Casement, and only 5% of unaligned voters were against the move.

And while 43% of nationalists don’t support the Northern Ireland football team, 53% responded that they would go to Casement to support the team if they played a Euro 2028 fixture at the stadium. 

Only 2% of unaligned voters said they wouldn’t attend Casement to watch Northern Ireland play. 

The opposition to Casement has also been felt at Northern Ireland football matches.

During a Euro 2024 qualifier against Slovenia in Windsor Park last October, some fans unfurled banners reading “No Casement”.

a-no-casement-banner-in-the-stands-during-the-uefa-euro-2024-qualifying-match-at-windsor-park-belfast-picture-date-monday-november-20-2023 A 'No Casement' banner in the stands during the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

And during a 3-0 victory against San Marino a few days earlier, many fans celebrated goals with chants of “You can shove your Casement Park up your hole”.

Speaking at the time, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said “everyone is entitled to their opinion on it”.

However, he added: “I would like to see it supported.

“It is really important that we get the opportunity to play and be a host nation but equally I respect the opinion of everyone in terms of what their view may or may not be on it.”

Opposition in the Republic

Meanwhile, some have commented that the money provided by the Irish government to ensure Casement can host Euro 2028 games would have been better spent on grass-roots football in the Republic.

Shelbourne manager and former Irish international Damien Duff said the funding allocation lacks “common sense”.

damien-duff Shelbourne boss Damien Duff. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“Fifty million euro, how many games will it (Casement) host? Four?

“I’d rather it be spent on academies. It’s not always black and white. Some people would prefer to spend it on stadiums.

“People get peed off because a lot of stuff comes down to common sense, and not a lot of people have that.”

Duff added that some bare necessities are not being catered for when it comes to both grassroots football and the League of Ireland.

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