Having had to apologise for “an error” in claiming that the “Electoral commission vetoed using last election figures” in defence of Sinn Féin’s sectarian leaflet campaign in North Belfast, the Northern Ireland Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, might have been better advised to be more cautious in her public utterances in future…
Despite having reportedly announced, last Thursday, a full review of the new Casement Park Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) ground redevelopment plan, on Tuesday, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, gave an apparently exclusive interview to the BBC News NI Business Correspondent, Julian O’Neill, on the latest wrinkle in the controversial £70million redevelopment of Casement Park in west Belfast, during which she claimed that,
What is clear to me is that there has been an anti-GAA element throughout the emergence of the redevelopment of Casement Park.
At no point does the Minister provide evidence of “an anti-GAA element”. It’s not there in the original, politically expedient, decision to provide public funds for the project.
The opposition to the proposed redevelopment has been led by a local residents group, and their opposition has been vindicated by Belfast High Court quashing planning permission for the proposed project. In any event, being opposed to the development of 38,000-seat stadium in your local neighbourhood doesn’t equate to being anti-GAA anymore than opposing 5 nights in a row of Garth Brooks concerts make you anti-Garth Brooks.
The Minister’s interview appears to be in direct response to the evidence given last Thursday by Chairman of the Safety Technical Group, Paul Scott, to the NI Assembly Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, during which, as today’s Irish News notes.
Mr Scott said he believed that the proposed 38,000-seat GAA stadium in west Belfast could not be evacuated safely and warned of the potential for a tragedy similar to the Hillsborough disaster.
He told the committee he had been raising safety concerns over the plans for two years.
Mr Scott also claimed he faced “undue pressure” from government officials to approve the plans, and has made a bullying complaint against the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure officials.
And, as noted at the time,
Mr Scott was addressing the Culture, Arts and Leisure committee on Thursday on the issue of Casement Park’s proposed redevelopment.
“I and Sport NI have received undue pressure from the GAA and from DCAL about my view of the safety of the Casement Park plan,” he said. An email was received that our comments were at odds with the requirements.”
Mr Scott claimed the GAA had “made a number of accusations about Sport NI officers on the STG” including that the group had treated the Casement Park project differently to the development at Windsor Park and Ravenhill. [added emphasis]
Interestingly the Irish News also tells us that, after providing the BBC with an interview on Tuesday,
Ms Ní Chuilín refused to attend a special assembly committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday to discuss concerns over Casement, a decision criticised by her political opponents.
Here is the minister’s interview in the BBC News NI Business Correspondent Julian O’Neill’s report
In the interview the NI Sports Minister claimed that
The first time I heard about all this was on last Thursday. Now, I’ve been in this Department for four years this month. I would imagine had those concerns been raised with my officials, or about my officials, I would have heard about it before last week.
When asked about her claim of an “anti-GAA element” – “Are you suggesting that safety concerns are part of an agenda?”
No, I am not saying that at all. I am not saying that at all. Safety concerns and allegations [that] were raised last week are completely separate. However, what I do find strange, that throughout the whole opposition to the redevelopment of Casement Park, I’ve never once, not once, heard of those concerns being raised. [added emphasis]
That’s strange because, as I mentioned in the update last Thursday
The specific safety concerns raised today are not new. DCAL were asked about the proposed emergency exiting strategy for over a year. As the BBC reported 4 weeks ago, based on FoI requested minutes of the STG meetings last year… And safety concerns featured in the High Court ruling in December.
A point that was highlighted by the local residents’ group in an immediate response to the NI Sports Minister’s BBC interview
…the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association (MORA) claim they have evidence that contradicts the minister’s assertion.
Carmel McCavana, chairperson of the association, said: “We have lots of evidence. It was presented in court [at the judicial review].
“We have reports that the police made to DCAL about safety concerns, so I just can’t understand how she didn’t know, or any of her officials didn’t know.” [added emphasis]
Bizarrely, given that the Minister made unsubstantiated allegations in her interview with Julian O’Neill, the BBC report now contains this response from DCAL
In a statement on Wednesday evening, a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) said Mrs Ní Chuilín had repeatedly said that “the allegations made to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee on 30 April are now the subject of an independent investigation“.
“This investigation will have access to all relevant documentation and will also take evidence from individuals as it deems appropriate.”
The DCAL spokesman added: “It is important that due process is adhered to throughout the investigation and that conclusions are not drawn or inferred from selective material which has been obtained by the media.” [added emphasis throughout]
The Irish News report adds
The DUP’s Nelson McCausland, chair of the Stormont culture, arts and leisure committee, said, “The DCAL minister’s response to this issue is increasingly reflective of panic and disarray. I have no doubt that the committee will wish to investigate the minister’s claim that she only heard about health and safety concerns for the first time when they were raised at the committee meeting.”
The North Belfast MLA added, “It is time that she faced up to her responsibilities instead of casting around for unnamed scapegoats to deflect attention.”
And, also in the Irish News, the leader of the UUP, Mike Nesbitt, is astonished at the Minister’s claims
…Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said yesterday he asked the minister about safety concerns in the Stormont chamber in November.
“The minister astonishes me with her claim not to have had any indication of safety concerns because I raised them directly and in the most formal of settings.
“This is misremembering on a professional scale. I remember it very well because she fobbed me off, hiding behind the judicial review.”
Not only did he raise the issue of safety concerns, but he specifically asked “the evacuation times for the three stadia and how do they compare to safe standards”. From the NI Assembly Official Report 25 November 2014 [scroll down]
T3. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether any of the relevant authorities have any outstanding issues with regard to health and safety matters in the design of the new stadia at Windsor Park, Casement Park and Ravenhill. (AQT 1803/11-15)
Ms Ní Chuilín: I cannot comment on Casement Park because it is subject to legal proceedings. A judicial review has been heard and we are waiting on the judgement.
I have not heard any health and safety issues in relation to Windsor Park or Ravenhill Kingspan. Had there been health and safety issues, they would have been brought forward to me. I have a very good and open working relationship with both sporting bodies. Any issues would have been brought to me well before now.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. What are the evacuation times for the three stadia and how do they compare to safe standards?
Ms Ní Chuilín: I will happily write to the Member on the evacuation procedures and standards. However, he should be aware that planning permission would not have been given to any of them unless the access and egress arrangements not only met the standards but went further than that. That is the criterion. It is not something that you might want to do or might think about doing; it is something that has to happen. If there is any issue that the Member has in relation to the other two stadia, I expect him to bring that to my attention and to the attention of the governing body. If not, he should certainly bring it to Belfast City Council, which has responsibility for the health and safety certificates that each of the sports grounds has received. [added emphasis]
There’s another answer from the NI Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that’s significant. This time it’s in response to her party colleague, Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast Pat Sheehan, dated 24 March 2015,
[NI Minister of Culture Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín]: A local residents group, Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents’ Association, (MORA) applied for a Judicial review into the decision and this was granted. The case was heard over 13 days between 9 September and 13 October 2014. On 18th December 2014 Mr Justice Horner quashed the existing planning approval for the Casement Park project.Since Mr Justice Horner’s decision on the 18th December 2014 I have met with the Ulster Council of the Gaelic Athletic Association to discuss the outcome of the Judicial Review and to hear details on how the Ulster Council were planning to move forward.Since the ruling the GAA, the department and the relevant team members have studied the judgement in order that the new Planning Application will fully address and take into account the points raised in the judgement. [added emphasis]
There is a strong resolve within the Ulster GAA to submit a new planning application in 2015 to develop a regional stadium in Ulster at Casement Park. The new application will take account of the learning points raised in the judgment and DCAL will fully support Ulster GAA during the new planning process.The redevelopment of Casement Park is an Executive Programme for Government pledge and therefore will remain a key priority.DCAL is committed to the re-development of Casement Park and will work with all parties to facilitate this becoming a reality.
That’s significant because the High Court ruling, from December 2014, is online. And it’s worth highlighting a few paragraphs from it
 On 15 October 2013 Sergeant McQueen of PSNI, as part of the consultation process, provided a report for the PSNI, to the GAA’s experts, RPS, detailing various concerns that the police had about the effect of the proposed development on the road network in general and road safety in particular. In his report Sergeant McQueen made a number of trenchant objections based on what would happen if a capacity crowd of 38,000 attended the new Casement Park. He complained about the ability of the adjacent road network to cope, of problems with a crowd exiting such a ground and the access of emergency services which might give rise to a potential breach of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) that is the right to life. He was concerned about the level of resources required to police such events and, in particular, during the period immediately after the event when the crowd was dispersing. [added emphasis]
And, perhaps most significant, the High Court ruling addresses, specifically, the issue of “the safe evacuation of the ground”. [Added emphasis throughout]
 The Applicant claims that the safe evacuation of the ground is a material planning consideration and that the Department should have considered it at the time of granting full planning permission. The Respondent denies that it is a material planning condition and says that if it is, it was entitled to leave that issue to be dealt with under the relevant statutory regime set up to deal with the safety of sports grounds.
 It is true that material considerations are merely matters which are “related to the purpose of planning legislation, which is to regulate development and the use of land in the public interest” (see paragraph 41 of PPS1). I accept that simply because another regulatory regime may cover this particular issue does not mean that it is not material in planning terms. Public safety can be a material consideration: see the Planning Encyclopaedia at Sections p70.18 and p70.39.
 It is also true as the Applicant points out that the police have already drawn attention to difficulties that might arise in safely evacuating a new Casement Park filled to capacity. However, in order for the ground to operate it requires a certificate under Article 5 of the Safety of Sports Grounds (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. Regulation 5(1) states:
“A safety certificate shall contain such terms and conditions as the council considers necessary or expedient to secure reasonable safety at the sports ground when it is in use for the specified activity or activities, and the terms and conditions may be such as to involve alterations or additions to the sports ground.”
 Without a safety certificate a sports ground cannot be used. However, there is a regulatory regime in place to ensure sports grounds are safe and can operate safely. There are detailed provisions to allow matters relating to the safety of spectators, including their evacuation, to be considered by those with an expertise in this field. The Chief Constable and the Fire and Rescue Service Board are involved in this process. There is a settled procedure and a transparent appeal process. It is lawful in the court’s view for the Department to grant planning permission without considering the issue of safe evacuation when the Department knows that this issue will be the subject of detailed consideration by Belfast City Council under a settled regulatory regime in the sure knowledge that the ground cannot be operated unless the council has been satisfied that it can be safely evacuated. Such an approach by the Department cannot be said to be Wednesbury unreasonable as it clearly comes within the range of reasonable responses open to the Department. Accordingly, I do not consider that this ground has any merit.
Although the High Court ruled against the applicant on that particular ground, it’s important to note the context in which that ruling was made.
One final point regarding the Minister’s announced ‘review’ which may be relevant. When the NI Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s press release was issued [30 April] the Minister said that
…I have asked my officials to urgently commission a full review of the project, including independent specialist advice as appropriate, which will draw on experts in the field of public safety.
“I am aware that a number of grievances were raised at the committee, including allegations of bullying, and they are currently the subject of an ongoing investigation by Sport NI.
“These allegations need to be fully investigated and I will seek independent advice to ensure that they are dealt with appropriately.
“I have also asked the Permanent Secretary of DCAL to convene a meeting of the Safety Technical Group to hear their concerns at first hand.”
The investigation into Mr Scott’s claims will be run by the Department of Finance and Personnel. [added emphasis]