Casement Park: Top civil servant tells MLAs rebuilding project is in 'good shape'

A delegation from the organisers of the Euro 2028 football tournament on site at Casement Park on Wednesday afternoon for an early inspection of the venue. Pic: PacemakerA delegation from the organisers of the Euro 2028 football tournament on site at Casement Park on Wednesday afternoon for an early inspection of the venue. Pic: Pacemaker
A delegation from the organisers of the Euro 2028 football tournament on site at Casement Park on Wednesday afternoon for an early inspection of the venue. Pic: Pacemaker
​The senior Stormont official in charge of delivering the Casement Park redevelopment has insisted the project is in “good shape” and has expressed optimism the stadium will host games at Euro 2028.

Colum Boyle, the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities (DfC), acknowledged that the funding shortfall for the build remained the key issue but said “conversations are happening” with the UK government on that matter.

Giving evidence to his assembly oversight committee, Mr Boyle acknowledged the challenge created when a previous contractor arrangement unravelled last year when one of the construction partners went into administration.

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But he said despite that setback, the project was still “progressing well” as officials worked to secure a fresh procurement agreement to build the 34,000 capacity venue in west Belfast.

The GAA stadium is one of the venues selected to host matches in the Euro 2028 football tournament, which is being jointly hosted by the UK and Ireland.

Uefa officials visited the derelict site of the old Casement Park this week.

The redevelopment project has been delayed by a series of planning disputes and legal challenges and the initial estimated cost of £77.5 million has spiralled to at least double the original figure, with some suggesting the bill could exceed £200 million.

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“Actually, we're in good shape, in terms of what is an exceptionally challenging programme of work – Casement Park is really, really difficult,” Mr Boyle told the committee.

The senior civil servant added: “We've been working very closely with our funding partners to look at how the funding should be taken forward. We had a technical visit from Uefa yesterday and the day before.

“So we're live on absolutely every line that we need to be alive on and I'm continuing to resource the team that we have with a level of expertise that we need.

“So we're progressing, we're progressing well. I'm comfortable with how we're progressing.

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“There are clear issues about the level of funding that's required. You never know the level of funding you need for these things in definitive terms until you test the market, until you procure and, yes, there are estimates in business case terms and I've seen lots of figures bandied about.

“We haven't bandied any figures about. We won't be bandying any figures about – that's all very commercial, it's all very sensitive and, as soon as you start talking numbers, then what you're saying to people out there who are bidding for the work is 'well, just you start at that level and work your way up'.

“So we're very, very conscious of the commercial sensitivities of all of that.

“So I'm in a reasonably confident position in terms of everything that we could do, we've done. But we have significant obstacles still to consider and some of those obstacles are outside of our control. And that's a big factor, particularly around funding. So that's the issue for partners in the round.”

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Mr Boyle said he would be “very hopeful” the stadium would be built and ready to be approved as a host venue for the Euros.

“I'm very pleased to see the progress that we've made,” he said.

“And the vast bulk of what we're doing, from a point of view of where DfC is with its partners, we're on track. But we have a window that we need to make sure we maximise.”

Mr Boyle said the project would deliver economic, societal and sporting benefits.

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The stadium would need to be finished by the summer of 2027 to be formally approved as a host venue for the Euros.

The Irish government last week pledged €50 million (£42.7 million) for the stadium and the UK government is facing calls to stump up the necessary shortfall to ensure it is built on time.

The GAA has also been under pressure to increase its original £15 million commitment, given the initial project cost has soared in the last decade. Newly elected GAA president Jarlath Burns this week voiced his opposition to increasing the association's contribution.

Mr Boyle said the issue of funding had moved into the “political sphere”.

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“From our point of view, we know we're looking at something which is construction inflation. We knew that's the scenario,” he said.

“We know that the configuration of the stadium has changed from what it was originally meant to be, we know that Uefa have particular requirements as well, which has increased the cost to some extent, as well.

“So there are a number of players involved in the British government in terms of this. We're very, very close to them. I think the conversations are happening. I think there's a level of sensitivity about that.

“But I think they're now going to a political sphere, as distinct from what's been happening over the last number of months – us as officials were heavily involved in that, (but) I think it's going to ratchet up I think in terms of being more of a political issue in terms of how the money gets resolved.”

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During his appearance before the committee, Mr Boyle also said a programme to redevelop regional stadia in Northern Ireland was progressing at pace.

He said the sub regional stadia redevelopment plan was a key priority for Communities Minister Gordon Lyons and he had instructed officials to intensify efforts to get work commenced.

Mr Boyle said an initial funding package of around £35 million pledged more than a decade ago “isn't going to cut it” in terms of completing all the work.

He said further funding tranches would need to be secured in the coming years.

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The senior civil servant said a lot of work had been ongoing with department officials and the clubs to assess what work was needed at each ground and to support them in developing business cases.

Asked when Mr Lyons might be bringing a proposal to the wider Stormont executive to sign off on the project, Mr Boyle said he would be disappointed if progress was not made in the next couple of months.

“So we're accelerating this as fast as we can,” he said.

“There's a bit of due process to finish off with the clubs in terms of their business cases coming forward, so that's really what the issue is, just the timing on that.

“But this is motoring ahead, this is motoring at speed and he (Minister Lyons) has asked me to make sure we bring this forward at pace.”