Sports minister walks out of committee examining safety at Casement Park

Caral Ni Chuilin
Caral Ni Chuilin

Stormont’s sports minister has dramatically walked out of her Assembly scrutiny committee after accusing its chairman of bias and objecting to being place under oath.

Caral Ni Chuilin refused to answer committee questions after giving a lengthy statement on a safety controversy around the proposed redevelopment of Casement Park in west Belfast.

In an unusual move, the Sinn Fein representative had been asked to give evidence to MLAs under sworn oath.

Ms Ni Chuilin, who swore on the Bible ahead of making her statement, accused DUP committee chairman Nelson McCausland of singling her out.

She also insisted she would not take questions unless all other witnesses to the committee’s stadium safety inquiry were also questioned under oath.

Mr McCausland is himself a former sports minister and Ms Ni Chuilin further alleged he had a conflict of interest as he was involved in the early stages of Stormont plans to redevelop Casement Park.

The minister’s appearance came after allegations were made that she was aware of safety concerns around the stadium plans before a whistle-blower went public last year.

After delivering her statement, which lasted more than an hour, the minister told committee members: “I would be happy to take questions in the future but only after the committee has decided that all witnesses will be questioned on oath or that no witnesses will be questioned under those conditions.

“It is only then I will return to this committee to answer questions, as soon as clarity has been achieved. I look forward to hearing from the committee - thank you very much.”

As the minister got to her feet, Mr McCausland questioned her actions.

“Is the minister not answering any questions?” he said.

Ms Ni Chuilin continued speaking to the chairman as she walked out of the room.

“Are you not listening, do you want me to read the statement out again?”

Mr McCausland requested her to return.

“Minister, minister can you please sit down and answer questions,” he said.

However, the Sinn Fein MLA left the room, saying: “I think I have made it clear I am not going back to this committee to answer questions unless you have clarified the position regarding oath - thank you.”

Ahead of delivering her statement, she raised concerns about the approach adopted by Mr McCausland.

“I am mostly concerned that there is, at the very least, an inescapable appearance of bias in the chairmanship of the committee given the active consideration being given to singling out the testimony of certain witnesses for evidence under oath and to the chair’s previous role and obvious conflicts of interest in relation to this inquiry arising from his role as minister in the initiation of the regional stadia programme,” she said.

Ms Ni Chuilin has long insisted she only became aware of the concerns when safety expert Paul Scott told the committee in April 2015.

Mr Scott said the stadium envisaged in plans could not be emptied safely in an emergency and warned of a similar situation to the Hillsborough tragedy.

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

The Culture, Arts and Leisure (CAL) committee launched an investigation into the redevelopment plans after Mr Scott informed members of his safety concerns.

Ms Ni Chuilin and the GAA have both insisted they acted correctly throughout the design process.

The hearing at Parliament Buildings was suspended for a number of minutes in the wake of the ministerial walk-out.

When it returned, Mr McCausland claimed the Assembly had never before witnessed such behaviour from a minister.

“In the context of something that has never happened before in this Assembly, of a minister walking out and refusing to answer questions, and thereby thwarting the democratic process and democratic scrutiny by elected representatives, and by treating the committee in the contemptuous way and shameful way we were treated this morning, I think the word stunt is probably an understatement,” he said.

The DUP representative claimed the minister’s actions suggested she had serious questions to answer about her role in the stadium redevelopment.

“The decision by the minister to get up and walk out and refuse to answer any questions may well say more about culpability than anything that could have been said in answer to questions,” he said.