Irish League clubs hit out after funding denied to fix ‘third world standard’ grounds

Irish League clubs have hit out at Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey for shelving funds that had been promised to improve “third world standard” grounds.

By Graeme Cousins
Tuesday, 15th February 2022, 7:18 pm
Glentoran FC has been promised £10m to redevelop The Oval.
Pic Colm Lenaghan / Pacemaker
Glentoran FC has been promised £10m to redevelop The Oval. Pic Colm Lenaghan / Pacemaker

Colin McKendry, chairman of Coleraine FC, said his club was “extremely disappointed but not surprised”.

He told the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster: “I’m very, very disappointed that sport in general has now become a political game.

“I think the people of both communities, be it Casement, be it the sub regional, need the funding released, we need to get to a stage where we can welcome communities from all sections into our grounds.

“A lot of our stadia is third world standard, yet we’re trying to raise the bar here.

“We really need to step up to the plate here to ensure that we have first class facilities, give the people what they deserve. Sport in general crosses all divides and we need to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

“We’re trying as a football family, we would like the politicians to do the same – come to an agreement, get us what we need, what we’ve been looking for, what we’ve been promised and get it to use as soon as possible.”

Crusaders FC treasurer Tommy Whiteside also spoke on the programme. He said Irish League clubs have been waiting for this money since the Taylor report to bring their grounds up to safe standards.

He said: “In effect [the minister] is creating a hierarchy of sports fans, GAA fans deserve their development and they need their safe stadium, but so do football fans. Is GAA fans’ safety more important than Irish League fans?”

As well as criticising the SF minister he said that the DUP also had the chance to release the funds when Paul Givan was Communities Minister, and despite receiving what he claimed was a personal assurance, he didn’t do it.

Larne FC owner Kenny Bruce said his club would be seeking legal advice on how to recover the tens of thousands spent on planning, building consultants and designers.

He said: “Not only have you pulled the rug from under our feet you have cost our communities millions. This is outrageous.”

Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Football League Gerard Lawlor described the decision as “disgraceful and unforgivable”.

The former Cliftonville FC chairman Mr Lawlor said he was “disappointing but not surprised” at the announcement.

He said: “To coin a well-known political phase ‘we haven’t gone away you know’ nor will we.

“Our clubs offer so much to their communities and the economy, this treatment is disgraceful and unforgivable.”

In 2011, a total of £110m was promised by the Executive to develop regional stadia (Windsor Park, Kingspan and Casement) while £36m was earmarked for a ‘Sub-Regional Stadia Programme for Soccer’.

Of that £36m, £10m was earmarked for the redevelopment of The Oval, home of Glentoran FC – and £17 was for other Premiership clubs.

More of the cash was to be spent at Championship level and on a single Intermediate/Junior football facility, while £3m was to go towards the development of a National Training Centre.

By March 2019, £61.8 million had been spent, reflecting the full costs associated with Ulster Rugby’s Kingspan stadium and The National Football Stadium at Windsor Park and pre-construction development costs for the Casement Park project.

At that stage the Sub-Regional Stadia Programme for Soccer had not yet formally begun.

While the plan to upgrade football stadia has been shelved by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said funding for Casement Park was secure as it had special flagship status.

Both Ms Hargey and Mr Murphy offered an explanation yesterday that the two projects were at different stages of progression, with the Casement redevelopment a live project, while the sub regional stadia programme had not reached the stage of identifying what works would be undertaken.

Asked why only funding for Casement Park is being ring fenced as a flagship project, a spokesperson for the Department for Communities said: “The minister has been clear that the £36.2m to regenerate stadiums is ring fenced. The minister is absolutely committed to delivering this investment to support clubs and build first-class facilities.

“It is well known that options for the future of the Sub Regional Stadia Programme requires Executive approval. The collapse of the Executive is preventing the regeneration of local stadiums.

“The minister is exploring all options available in the current situation.”

When asked the same question, the Department of Finance, gave a short response: “The Sub-Regional Stadia Programme is a Flagship Project.”

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