Casement Park: Safety Concerns

Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Arts and Leisure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 22nd June 2015.

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Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 3:00 pm, 22nd June 2015

5. Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the chronology relevant to her knowledge of safety concerns relating to the redevelopment of Casement Park. (AQO 8450/11-15)

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. Safety is and must be at the heart of all stadium projects, including Casement Park. Given the range of experience and diverse perspectives on each capital project, we can be sure of one thing: people will not agree at all times. However, we need debate and dialogue to forge the best possible project and programme. The governance structures put in place for the stadium programme ensure that the necessary checks and balances are in place and provide the forum for open debate and dialogue before final decisions are approved.

As I have previously stated, I was aware that a project of this nature would have important public safety aspects to be considered throughout the development process. I am aware that the safety technical group was involved in discussions about safety. However, the first that I was made aware of the allegations that safety concerns had been ignored was when the chair of the safety technical group gave evidence to the CAL Committee on 30 April. I was shocked by that and, as a result, commissioned an independent project assessment review (PAR), which took place between 15 and 19 June. A copy of the final PAR report will be published in due course.

I want to make it clear that I am happy for anyone to look at this programme openly and transparently. My Department is fully cooperating with the CAL Committee's inquiry, which I hope will add some objective, constructive analysis to the whole debate.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Mr Paul Scott was very clear that he had warned the Department, in his words, over many months and years, about the safety risks. It seems that the Minister was either turning a blind eye or was asleep at the wheel. Which was it?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Mr Scott's allegations are the subject of two reviews — the Committee's investigation and the independent investigation — in addition to the review that I have asked DFP to come in and do. He made two very serious allegations: one was that he had raised safety concerns, and the other was that he was bullied and gagged when putting those forward. Let me totally clear — the Member is very fond of making accusations about individuals and groups in this place and hiding behind parliamentary privilege — if you or anyone else believes that I deliberately hid safety concerns, they need to bring that forward. In the absence of doing so, the Member needs to put up or shut up.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I remind the Minister to address remarks through the Chair.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I will not veer into asking questions about the investigation as a member of the Committee; I am doing that in Committee. Has the Minister recently held meetings with the residents immediately around the ground or with the Gaelic Athletic Association on the issue of emergency exiting from Casement?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I am due to meet a residents' group. I know that the Member is working with the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents' Association (MORA), but there is another residents group called the Andersonstown Regeneration Committee (ARC), which is made up of residents in the immediate vicinity, and I am due to meet them this week.

I await the outcome of the PAR on emergency exiting and all the rest. An absolute wealth of paperwork has gone forward — not just to the Committee inquiry, as it will also come forward as part of any new planning application. I am willing to meet anybody about this. I have said that I would, and I will continue to do so. I look forward to the meeting this week with the Andersonstown Regeneration Committee.

Photo of Ian Milne Ian Milne Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Was the Minister aware that the chair of the safety technical group felt that the Casement Park project had what have been described as showstopping safety concerns? Will she tell us what opportunities he and Sport NI staff and board members had to bring any serious concerns to her attention?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I want to use the opportunity to repeat that I was not aware of that. The first that I heard of the allegations was on 30 April, when Mr Scott was brought before the Committee at the invitation of the Chair of the Committee. I was not aware of any showstopping safety concerns. There was ample opportunity to bring those to me, but I am reluctant to go into any more detail than that. That will be the subject of not just the PAR but the independent investigation that will look into the two serious allegations that were made by Mr Scott on 30 April in front of the CAL Committee.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Given the degree of public funding involved in the project and the degree of public interest, will the Minister explain why these fundamental design and safety issues, which can be life-or-death issues, were not adequately addressed at the design stage and somehow proceeded to the planning permission stage?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member is not across the detail of the programme. He has made an assumption that the designs were inadequate, but, if they were inadequate, how did they receive planning permission? At the end of the day, the arbitrary say is with the statutory authority of Belfast City Council, which issues safety certificates.

I am aware that any construction will be done with an eye to ongoing discussion with the statutory body, namely the council, to ensure not only that buildings are compliant as far as safety is concerned but that the design is compliant from start to finish, with a view to gaining a safety certificate at the end. Like other Members, the Member is picking up on sound bites that he has heard in the media and has run with those. You need to get better information.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answers to this point. Is she confident that the inquiry being conducted by the CAL Committee will be done in an utterly fair, unbiased and impartial manner?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I know that some members of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee will ensure that that happens. They will ensure that it is impartial. I have seen and heard reports, for example, that the Committee Chair made, as I understand it, as a member of the DUP rather than as Chair and which have prompted some speculation about that independence. However, unlike other inquiries that have taken place in the House, I am opening up my Department, my books and my officials, staff and anyone else for investigation to ensure not only that safety concerns were paramount but that they will remain paramount. If there are lessons that can be learned from this, I will accept them in the spirit in which they are meant. I know of other members of the Committee whose personal integrity will ensure that it is fully independent.