Residents’ legal challenge against Casement Park redevelopment is dismissed

A legal challenge by a residents’ group against a decision to grant planning approval for the redevelopment of the GAA’s Casement Park in Belfast has been dismissed.

The Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association (Mora) had taken a judicial review over the decision by former infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon to approve the 34,000-plus capacity stadium in the west of the city.

The GAA’s efforts to develop the old stadium site at Casement Park have been mired in controversy, with a previous planning approval for a 38,000-capacity venue quashed by the High Court in 2014 following a challenge by Mora.

A revised planning application was subsequently submitted and approved by Ms Mallon.

Brian McAvoy, Chief Executive of Ulster GAA, Ciaran McLaughlin, President of Ulster GAA and Tom Daly, Chairman of Casement Park Stadium Development Project Board

The ex-SDLP minister lost her Stormont seat at the recent Assembly election.

Mora had argued her decision was unlawful on both planning grounds and on constitutional grounds, in the latter instance arguing that Ms Mallon should have sought the approval of other executive ministers under the terms of Stormont’s ministerial code.

Delivering judgment in the case at Belfast High Court on Tuesday, Mr Justice Humphreys said all arguments advanced by Mora on planning issues were “without merit”.

He said Ms Mallon’s failure to secure wider Executive approval represented a “technical breach” of legislation but used the court’s discretion to uphold her decision regardless, noting that no Executive ministers were opposed to the redevelopment.

The constitutional aspect of the challenge centred on legislation passed in 2020.

The Executive Committee (Functions) Act clarified the circumstances within which ministers can make decisions without needing the approval of the wider administration and enabled the infrastructure minister to make significant planning decisions without recourse to other ministers.

Crucially, however, after the Act was passed, the corresponding Ministerial Code governing the conduct of Stormont ministers was not updated to reflect the legislative changes.

So, under the terms of the code, when Ms Mallon made the Casement Park decision, she was still required to seek executive approval for significant or controversial planning decisions.

Mr Justice Humphreys acknowledged this was a technical breach of the legislation but he said the planning decision should still be upheld.

In making the discretionary judgment, he cited several factors.

The judge said there was “no evidence that any minister disagreed with the decision to grant planning permission for Casement Park” and said Ms Mallon had provided papers to her ministerial colleagues informing them of her intention to grant approval.

“This was not a solo run by the minister, in that she kept her executive colleagues informed as to her intentions,” he said.

The judge said the commitment to redevelop the stadium was also agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored power-sharing in 2020.

The judge also noted that the Department of Communities, which is the majority funder of the project, “expressly supported” the planning decision.

The judge said the fact the planning grounds for appeal had been rejected was also a factor.

Finally, he highlighted there had “already been significant delay and there is considerable public interest in this project”.

He concluded: “So, for all the reasons set out, the application for judicial review is dismissed.”