THE £110m redevelopment of Northern Ireland’s three largest sports stadiums has been thrown into doubt after a legal challenge claimed that state funding for one of the projects breaks European Union competition laws.
In September 2010 the Stormont Executive abandoned plans for a state-of-the-art sports stadium at the former Maze/Long Kesh prison site and opted instead to redevelop the GAA’s Casement Park, Ulster’s rugby ground at Ravenhill and the Windsor Park soccer stadium.
Crucially each of the three stadium developments, which are receiving £110m funding from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), are interlinked as part of the overall funding venture, meaning that none of the three projects can proceed without the other.
Under the redevelopment plans Windsor Park, which is owned by Linfield Football Club, is to benefit from £25m in DCAL grant aid. Last month planning permission was passed in record time for an 18,000- seat stadium, with construction work scheduled to begin in August and be completed by the summer of 2015.
However, The Detail news website has revealed that Belfast High Court has now been asked to immediately block the development proposals amid claims that it breaches EU competition laws. The legal challenge has been launched by Crusaders FC director Mark Langhammer, who claims DCAL’s decision to fund the Windsor Park stadium is in breach of EU fair trade legislation.
“This expenditure represents a significant benefit to private undertakings – the IFA and Linfield Football Club,” Mr Langhammer has stated in a sworn affidavit to the court.
“The IFA has further entered into an agreement with Linfield Football Club to pay a substantial ground rent once the ‘national’ stadium is built.”
The legal challenge is that Linfield FC will benefit from estimated annual savings of between £150,000 and £400,000 in terms of rates, utilities and maintenance and will also receive up to 15pc of gate receipts from international matches held at the new stadium.
Mr Langhammer claims that under the European Union’s Treaty of the Functioning European Union (TFEU) legislation, individual governments are not permitted to provide financial interventions to support individual companies which leads to an unfair trading advantage.
The Detail asked DCAL for a response to the allegations made by Mr Langhammer and for comment on what impact the legal challenge will have on the investment at Casement, Ravenhill and Windsor.
A DCAL spokesman responded: “The Department has received a request for information in relation to this and is currently considering its response. Until this consideration is completed it would be inappropriate to comment further.”