Casement Park and the long road to Euro 2028

An aerial view of the previous Casement Park GAA stadium
Casement Park has not been in use for 10 years [Inpho]

The clock is ticking for Northern Ireland hopes of being part of hosting Euro 2028.

It was last October that it was confirmed the UK and Ireland would be bringing one of the world's biggest sporting tournaments to its shores.

It will be the first time Wales, the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland have hosted matches of a major international tournament.

But Northern Ireland's contribution to the bid - Belfast's Casement Park - does not yet exist. And no-one knows who will pay for its redevelopment.

There have been plans to build a modern 34,000 capacity stadium on the site for more than 10 years - but political instability, issues behind the scenes and planning permission U-turns combined to keep the bulldozers away.

So, how did we get here and what comes next? BBC News NI has a look at Northern Ireland's stadium saga.

Where is Casement Park?

In west Belfast, just a stone's throw from the busy M1 motorway heading south out of Belfast, is where you'll find Northern Ireland's sole venue for Euro 2028.

It first opened in 1953 as a stadium for Gaelic games, and has been the home of Antrim GAA since its inception. The official capacity was just more than 31,000, although three-quarters of the ground was terracing.

However, there have been no visitors to Casement in more than a decade and, for years, any passing motorists able to crane their neck into the ground would only see a derelict husk.

In February, clearance work finally began at the site in preparation for the new stadium - but it's still unclear when, or even if, that will happen.

Why redevelop Casement Park?

To answer that question, we have to go back a couple of decades.

At that time, Northern Ireland's three main stadiums for football, rugby and GAA - Windsor Park, Ravenhill, and Casement - were seen as increasingly not fit for purpose.

Money and a new plan was needed. Initially, Northern Ireland's power-sharing government - the Northern Ireland Executive - came up with an idea for a new, multi-purpose national stadium for all sports.

But the divisive proposal of situating the stadium at the site of the Maze Prison - which held paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, Northern Ireland's bloody conflict of 30 years - meant the idea was eventually dashed on the political rocks.

So instead, in 2011, it was decided that cash would go towards stadium redevelopment:

  • Windsor Park, the home of Northern Ireland's international football team and Linfield FC, was turned into an 18,500 all-seater stadium at the cost of £31m - the new build reopened in October 2016

  • Ravenhill, the home of Ulster Rugby, was redeveloped and capacity increased to 18,000 at a cost of £16.5m - work finished in May 2014

  • About £36m would be set aside for sub-regional football stadia aka grounds used by local football clubs

  • And Casement Park would get £61m - the same amount as football in total - for a new 38,000 capacity stadium

While Ravenhill and Windsor - or the National Stadium as it's now officially known - are open and hosting big events, Casement Park has not seen so much as a shovel.

Why has the Casement Park redevelopment taken so long?

In 2012, stadium designers were appointed to the project and it was expected the new Casement Park would be built by 2015. But it didn't turn out that way.

The first big obstacle came in 2014, when the High Court overturned planning permission for the project.

Local residents, led by the Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association (MORA), had lodged a legal challenge over objections to the stadium's size - they said it would block out light from local homes and cause serious traffic disruption.

Then, in 2015, came possibly the most contentious year of the Casement Park project.

Firstly, it emerged that a Safety Technical Group (STG) formed to oversee safety issues around the new stadium had not approved the design plans due to concerns over how long it would take people to leave the ground in an emergency.

Later, one of the STG members, safety expert Paul Scott, told a Northern Ireland Assembly committee that he had been put "under pressure" to approve the plans by government officials.

He also complained of bullying- he later settled an industrial tribunal case with Sport NI.

With the original Casement plan now scrapped, the GAA went to work on plans for a new stadium, revising the capacity down to about 34,500.

It submitted a fresh application for planning permission in 2017, which was granted in 2021.

Finally, in 2022, local residents lost a legal challenge against the new project against the plan - the stadium could now go ahead.

So, Casement Park and Euro 2028 - how did that happen?

While the Casement saga rumbled on, authorities from the UK and Ireland's five football associations were getting their heads together to explore the possibility of co-hosting the 2030 World Cup.

They spent £2.8m on a feasibility study. But, in 2022, they shifted focus to Euro 2028.

The submitted bid included 10 stadia, with Casement Park as Northern Ireland's sole venue.

Euro 2020 trophy
Northern Ireland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland have never hosted matches for a major international football tournament [Getty Images]

Despite the new ground only existing on a drawing board, it was Northern Ireland's only chance to host tournament matches, given Uefa's requirement that all host stadia exceed 30,000 capacity.

Northern Ireland's football home, the National Stadium, holds 18,500 spectators.

When Turkey, the only other nation bidding for Euro 2028, withdrew from the process in early October, it meant the UK and Ireland bid - with Casement Park along for the ride - was all set for the big stage.

So who is paying for Casement Park?

Short answer - we still don't know yet.

Originally the stadium was to cost about £76m, with £61m coming from Northern Ireland's power-sharing government and £15m from the GAA.

But that was more than 10 years ago, and with spiralling construction costs and other financial hiccups, it has now been suggested that the stadium could cost more than £300m.

The Northern Ireland Executive has pledged to pay £62.5m, the Irish government has promised €50m (£43m) and the GAA - the sporting body which oversees Gaelic games - has said it would contribute £15m, but no more.

So that leaves a considerable amount of money needed to get the stadium built.

Last year, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris was asked where that extra money would come from - and he struck a confident tone.

"We'll get the money, don't you worry," he said in May 2023.

But that confidence appears to have evaporated. In March, a leaked letter from Mr Heaton-Harris to Communities Minister Gordon Lyons said the government "will not accept a position where it is expected to cover the scale of funding gap there appears to exist".

Mr Lyons, who is charge of the project for Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, has said Northern Ireland may have to "look for alternatives" for their redevelopment in Euro 2028 if the stadium does not happen and that a "con

He said authorities are "waiting for confirmation from the UK government about their funding commitment".

Ulster GAA and the Irish FA wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, appealing for clarity over Casement Park funding.

With a major football tournament on the horizon, a considerable amount of political will exists to make sure the new Casement Park is built and ready for 2028.

But the clock is ticking and, as July's general election approaches, the chances of funding being agreed in the short term is very unlikely.

What else do we need to know about Casement Park and Euro 2028?

Well, it's not just residents' concerns and the cost of the project which has been raising eyebrows.

For instance, Northern Ireland football supporters' group, the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs (AONISC), have said it is their preference that "football tournaments should be hosted by football stadia".

Some of that frustration is driven by stadium money of a different kind - when cash was announced for Casement, Windsor Park and Ravenhill more than a decade ago, £36m was set aside for what were described as sub-regional football stadia.

Most football league grounds in Northern Ireland are in dire need of redevelopment. And with the £25m earmarked for Windsor, it would mean football and Gaelic games both getting an equal slice - £61m - from the public purse.

That money was delayed due to inaction and the continual political instability in Northern Ireland, until Gordon Lyons announced in May that the long-awaited £36m would be released.

The complicated political landscape is also a factor. Northern Ireland's football team is cross-community, but takes much of it support from the Protestant community, while many Catholics support the Republic of Ireland. The national team's home, Windsor Park, is in a unionist area, while Casement Park is in predominantly nationalist west Belfast.

It's named after Sir Roger Casement, an Irish revolutionary who, in 1916, was executed in London for treason. Even the GAA's own history with football is complicated, given that up until 2005 a rule was in place forbidding other sports from using GAA pitches.

So what's next for Casement Park?

Secure the rest of the funding, build the stadium and get ready to host the biggest sporting event in Northern Ireland's history - well, that's the simple answer.

The more complicated answer, after more than 10 years of twists and turns, remains to be seen.