Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has accused Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin of attempting to deflect from serious concerns about an alleged cover-up of safety problems at the proposed Casement Park stadium after she made a bizarre claim about him.
The Sinn Fein minister responded to a call by Mr Nesbitt for an inquiry into her handling of the stadium issue by claiming that the UUP leader had developed a “new-found interest...in GAA stadia and I look forward to seeing him in the futrue in the new and safe Casement Park”.
The claim was odd because before entering politics Mr Nesbitt was a well-known sports reporter for the BBC who regularly covered GAA matches.
The late-night statement from Ms Ni Chuilin came after a renowned safety expert Paul Scott told a Stormont committee that he had been put under “undue pressure” to approve plans for the new ground by officials from the minister’s department, despite his grave concerns about the potential for a disaster at the stadium.
Mr Scott said that in his professional view the proposed 38,000-capacity stadium could not be evacuated safely, leaving him fearful that a disaster such as the Hillsborough stadium tragedy could happen in west Belfast.
It is the latest serious problem to befall the stadium project. Last year a High Court judge quashed a decision to give planning permission for the stadium.
Mr Nesbitt accused Ms Ni Chuilin of a “pathetic attempt to divert attention from his focus on when she first became aware of safety concerns at Casement Park”.
The UUP leader said: “I understand the Minister accuses me of a ‘new found’ interest in the GAA. For the record, here is the history of my engagement with Gaelic sports.
“Ms Ní Chuilín was still of school age when I attended my first GAA match. Since then I have attended many games, including matches at Casement, Clones, and Croke Park, where I have been a spectator at no fewer than three All-Ireland Finals, two football and one hurling.
“I wonder how many All-Ireland Finals she has attended?
“As a sports reporter, I was solely responsible for enhancing coverage of the GAA on BBC Radio Ulster, ensuring parity with association and rugby union football.
“As a communications consultant representing Ulster Bank, I was a member of the core team that negotiated a sponsorship deal with the Down County teams, a fact current Ulster GAA Secretary Danny Murphy can confirm, as he often mentions it when we meet.
“As an MLA for Strangford, I have accepted invitations to GAA matches in the same way I have to matches in other football codes.
“If that represents ‘new found’ in the minister’s mind, then it further undermines my confidence in her judgement.”
The UUP leader added: “I urge her to stop trying to deflect attention from the issue and focus on being honest about what she did and did not know about the safety of the Casement plan and crucially, when she first knew there was a problem.”