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Millennium was ‘excellent opportunity’ for new Northern Ireland national stadium

The football stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast, one of the venues suggested in the late 1990s for a national stadium for Northern Ireland (Alamy/PA)
The football stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast, one of the venues suggested in the late 1990s for a national stadium for Northern Ireland (Alamy/PA)

The millennium was regarded as presenting an “excellent opportunity” to create a new national stadium for Northern Ireland.

Private correspondence and minutes of meetings from the late 1990s reveal years of discussions about the proposed size and location of a facility for the four main sports – football, rugby, GAA and athletics – as well as for other cultural and popular events.

A file that was kept secret until this year shows there was strong lobbying of then-sports minister Kate Hoey to site the proposed stadium in Craigavon by Craigavon Council and Upper Bann MLAs George Savage (UUP) and Brid Rogers (SDLP).

Windsor Park in Belfast, Lagan Park at Sprucefield and the North Foreshore in Belfast were also potential locations mooted.

Government of Ireland Act
Baroness Hoey was sports minister ahead of the millennium (Niall Carson/PA)

Following the setting up of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the creation of locally elected ministers in 1999, UUP MLA Michael McGimpsey became the first minister for culture, arts and leisure.

In 2001, Mr McGimpsey was pressed to upgrade Windsor Park, with letters from a W Kelly urging that the case for upgrading the south Belfast ground “is overwhelming”, and “can be justified on the grounds of cost, cross-community and cross-border, accommodation for other sports, location, security and precedence”.

However, another note in the file suggested that Windsor Park was “unsuitable on the grounds of poor facilities and its location being unattractive to the community as a whole”.

The conversation was started in 1999 by then minister John McFall who established a working group led by the Sports Council. A report was produced in July 1999 by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

However, the idea had been being discussed from 1998 with the millennium being regarded as an “excellent opportunity to create a new national stadium for Northern Ireland”.

At that stage, it was projected that £80m of capital funding and £2m of recurrent funding was needed.

Minister McGimpsey met representatives of the four main sports on October 25 2000, a meeting which was described as “inconclusive insofar as the overall commitment by all the sports to a national sports stadium was concerned, and highlighted a number of obstacles that would have to be overcome”.

“The location of the stadium would be a key factor,” it was noted.

Windsor Park also came with issues, including being described at the Soccer Strategy Conference Workshop in February as “unsuitable on the grounds of poor facilities and its location being unattractive to the community as a whole”, while it was also noted that Linfield FC had concerns in terms of any potential changes to an agreement with IFA for the use of the stadium for international “A” matches which was described as providing a “considerable source of income for the club”.

The national stadium for four sports was not built in the end.

Instead, Windsor Park became the national stadium for football while Ulster Rugby received funding to upgrade its Lansdowne Road ground and the GAA was to receive money to upgrade Casement Park.

The Casement Park project remains outstanding to this day following years of legal battles.