Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Tuesday, 24 July 2007
Meeting with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Update on Proposed Multi-Sports Stadium
Tuesday 24 July 2007
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Edwin Poots (Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure)
Mr Paul Sweeney (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure)
Mr Tony Whitehead (Strategic Investment Board)
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff): I welcome members of the Committee and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr Poots, to this special meeting to discuss the single issue on the agenda — a progress report on the multi-sports stadium.
I thank the Minister for his willingness to meet the Committee this morning and for providing some helpful documents ahead of the meeting. Members and I have had a few days to read those documents, which we appreciate. I welcome the permanent secretary of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), Mr Paul Sweeney, and Mr Tony Whitehead, who I believe is a consultant to the Strategic Investment Board (SIB). Is that right, Tony?
Mr Tony Whitehead (Strategic Investment Board): I am an adviser. That is a less pejorative word than “consultant”.
The Chairperson: Thank you, Tony. You are all very welcome. I invite the Minister to make a presentation to the Committee. Members will then have an opportunity to ask questions and, perhaps, make some comments as well.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I thank the Committee for the opportunity to give a factual update on the process governing the development of a multi-sports stadium for Northern Ireland, which was applied by the direct rule Ministers over the past two and a half years and which I have inherited.
Although I am aware that, to date, the process has been based on best practice and has been assisted by eminently qualified experts, it is my hope that the public can be better informed and reassured about the process and can share my confidence that it has been extensive and thorough.
The fact that the Committee has convened this special meeting confirms the great deal of public interest in the subject and the passion and ambition throughout our community to achieve sporting excellence.
I assure the Committee that I am determined to discharge my ministerial duties with impartiality, integrity, transparency and openness. Based on those principles, I am determined to play my part in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to provide visionary leadership to address the serious deficit in Northern Ireland’s cultural and sporting infrastructure.
We know from experience elsewhere that properly designed and executed multi-sports stadiums can greatly enhance the sporting and cultural richness of nations and regions. They can provide a tremendous sense of pride and place, and they can be theatres of dreams in which the sporting and cultural heroes of today and tomorrow can be honoured. As we contemplate the future, I am privileged to be part of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape Northern Ireland’s sporting and cultural landscape.
My immediate priority is to ensure the widest possible community consensus on how to address the serious deficit in our cultural and sporting infrastructure and, in particular, to secure agreement on the most strategically advantageous way to enable Northern Ireland to host internationally significant sporting and cultural events. As the Committee is aware, the concept of a multi-sports stadium for Northern Ireland is not new — indeed, it has been talked about since the mid-1990s.
The Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough disasters led to a landmark report by Lord Taylor, the late Lord Chief Justice. That report concluded that sporting venues in Great Britain were unsafe, poorly designed and unable to meet the needs and expectations of the modern-day spectator. At that time, attendances at major sporting events — particularly football matches — were in serious decline. As a result of the full implementation of the Taylor Report, stadiums in Great Britain were constructed to appropriate standards of safety and comfort. That development has led to attendances almost doubling in the past 15 years and to the successful hosting of major sporting events such as Euro ’96.
It is regrettable that the legislation that resulted from that report did not cross the Irish Sea and that, as a consequence, the tremendous resurgence in spectator attendances that has been experienced across the water has not occurred in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we have fallen further behind.
Sparked by concerns about safety and comfort standards at local sporting venues, and appreciating the direct link between those standards and sporting attendance, several Government reports were commissioned by, among others, the Department of Education and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland. Those reports concluded that even Northern Ireland’s best existing stadiums fell far short of the standards that now exist. As a result, in the late 1990s, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, along with the major sporting bodies, sought to address those shortcomings and proposed the creation of a shared-use, multi-sports stadium for all the main sports. A report published in 1999 for the Department of Education and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland’s national stadium working party concluded that such a proposal could be achieved and that there was a prima facie case for further detailed investigation.
That work culminated in a Sports Council paper that was approved and published in April 2003. Drawing on safety and comfort best practice that now exists in Great Britain, the Sports Council’s paper, which is available if required, concluded that none of Northern Ireland’s existing stadiums was capable of delivering against modern needs.
A new, modern, multi-sports stadium is required for the shared use of football, Gaelic games and rugby. Such a facility would be more cost-effective and sustainable, would put Northern Ireland on the map for major international events, and, importantly, would address the need to end the benign apartheid in our sporting activities.
In January 2004, as a direct response to the Sports Council paper and local political interest, Angela Smith, the then Minister with responsibility for culture, arts and leisure, asked the Strategic Investment Board to undertake an initial business planning exercise, which was non-site specific at that stage, to assess the issue of whether a shared future multi-sports stadium for football, rugby and Gaelic could be operationally viable — sustainable without the need for ongoing public revenue subsidy.
Stadium business plan experts from the hospitality and leisure division of PricewaterhouseCoopers worked with the SIB and representatives from the three key sports, and in May 2004 they concluded that a shared future multi-sports stadium could be operationally viable, providing all three sports were involved. A copy of that initial business plan has been provided to the Committee for information. As a result, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure then asked the SIB to undertake an independent site-appraisal exercise to evaluate the potential for finding a suitable site that was technically deliverable within reasonable timescales and acceptable to the three sports necessary for the shared future multi-sports stadium.
A public advertisement in May 2004 received 12 site responses. Those sites were then placed on a formal longlist for an additional technical assessment on deliverability within reasonable timescales. Independent professionals from BDP Planning, Faber Maunsell — specialists in transport infrastructure — and Davis Langdon — specialists in cost and project management — undertook that exercise, which also involved consultation with the Planning Service, Roads Service and Translink and made extensive use of site information supplied by the site owners. The SIB and DCAL published the full independent report two weeks ago.
Of the 12 sites, the technical report recommended two for further analysis — the Maze and the north foreshore — with the remaining sites falling short on a range of technical deliverability grounds such as planning, transport and site assembly. Representatives from the SIB wrote to all site owners with a summary of reasons for their site making — or failing to make — the shortlist.
The technical report concluded that, of the two shortlisted sites, the former Maze Prison and Army base appeared to satisfy more of the deliverability requirements than the north foreshore site, particularly given the uncertainty regarding the extent of the site contamination issues at the north foreshore and the limited potential scale of adjacent commercial development.
Following the site selection technical report, DCAL, the SIB and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland consulted with representatives from the three sports involved — football, rugby and Gaelic. All three expressed a willingness to participate in a stadium at the Maze. As a result, in March 2005, DCAL announced that, in order to move forward with business planning and the project delivery work on the proposed stadium, the Maze was the only site under consideration.
Members will be aware that, around the same time, the cross-party Maze consultation panel independently published a report, ‘A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh’. The panel’s report recommended key elements for the transformation and regeneration of the site, including the shared future multi-sports stadium for football, rugby and Gaelic. The panel’s report was endorsed by all four party leaders at the time, and Ministers were urged to act swiftly to deliver on it and explore the mutual benefits to be gained from a private-sector development partner. Senior representatives from the three sports have since continued to work with DCAL, the SIB, the Sports Council and PricewaterhouseCoopers London on an updated stadium business plan specifically for the Maze site.
An August 2005 version of that business plan, along with a relevant economic appraisal, has been provided to Committee members for information. Committee members will also note that the paper that was published by the Sports Council in 2003, which I mentioned earlier, was extensively drawn upon in the “Assessment of Needs” section of the 2005 economic appraisal.
In January 2006, at the request of David Hanson, the then Minister with responsibility for culture, arts and leisure, the three sports committed, in principle, to the stadium being built at the Maze. Later that year, representatives of the three sports were asked to work alongside DCAL, the SIB and the Sports Council on the detailed design of the multi-sports stadium with the design consortium led by HOK Sport, the internationally renowned stadium architects.
It is important to remember that the business plan and stadium design work has been ongoing for some time and has involved significant and detailed input from senior representatives from each of the three sports. In the coming weeks, each of the three sports will be asked to sign off on the multi-sports stadium business plan. The stadium design on which they have been working will also form part of the financial and economic appraisal of the wider Maze development plans that will also be submitted to the relevant Departments shortly.
At this sensitive stage, I cannot prejudge the decisions that the Executive will take on value for money, viability and affordability. However, I will read excerpts from a letter that I received on 16 July 2007 from the Irish Football Association’s (IFA) chief executive, Mr Howard Wells:
“From my knowledge, other than the Maze proposal, there appears to be no other viable bid on the table or one that will come forward in the near future …
The IFA can barely sustain international football on current levels of attendance of 13,000 plus. We are actively pursuing the option of playing two friendly matches next February and March overseas as a means of generating revenue.
So, further procrastination has the potential to lead us nowhere other than down a blind alley … It is unlikely that any Belfast driven initiative will sit well with the concept of a shared future. The IFA is very keen to work with the other two sports to drive change and to market sport across all sections of the community.”
I am aware that the other two sports — Gaelic and rugby — have expressed concerns about the uncertainty and the slow progress on the matter.
We owe it to our sporting community to address this issue as a matter of importance. With regard to the timescales for making decisions on stadium-related issues, the overriding consideration is the need to make the right decisions. Therefore, the Executive will take whatever time is necessary to ensure that the public interest is best served. However, a number of timing issues have to be factored into the decision-making process. Windsor Park’s ability to meet the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and health and safety requirements for major fixtures is seriously in doubt. Although, ultimately, that is the responsibility of Linfield Football Club and the IFA, it is obvious that the IFA will want to consider those issues within the context of the proposed multi-sports stadium.
Importantly, the implementation of the recently enacted Safety at Sports Grounds ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which will bring safety standards at local venues in line with those enjoyed at stadiums throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, will result in a significant reduction in capacity at our larger stadiums. That will, undoubtedly, reduce the number of our citizens who can attend the many attractive sporting fixtures played in Northern Ireland and will also impact on the financial viability of the respective governing bodies.
The 2007 comprehensive spending review incorporating the investment strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI) will be subject to Assembly approval later this year and, ideally, any capital and resource consequences in respect of the Maze and/or a proposed stadium should be factored into those budgetary processes.
The opportunity for Northern Ireland to host a number of Olympic group soccer matches as part of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games is contingent on the availability of a fit-for-purpose stadium. The hosting of the World Police and Fire Games in 2013 is predicated on a stadium being available within the greater Belfast area. Indeed, Committee members are aware of how central and symbolic a shared future multi-sports stadium at the Maze was to the winning bid.
The potential to yield maximum benefits from any private-sector partnering arrangement is more likely to be achieved if uncertainties are removed and an agreed development scenario is put in place as soon as possible. That will be important if we are to maintain the confidence and trust of potential developers.
Mindful of the above timing issues, I made my position clear, on taking up ministerial office, that I was keen to hear of any other options capable of meeting the key deliverables of the existing policy framework. I wanted to ensure that any potentially viable options could be factored into the decision-making process.
I want to ensure that the Executive have available all the relevant data to facilitate the examination of the full costs and benefits of the proposed multi-sports stadium, operating as I have within the policy and processes that I have inherited. PricewaterhouseCoopers is currently preparing the updated business case for the proposed shared future stadium. For comparative purposes, that cost-benefit analysis will include a range of options, including the option of refurbishing existing stadiums and an appraisal of a virtual Belfast option. If other potentially viable and policy-compliant options for a stadium had been sufficiently advanced, it would have been possible to have included them in the options appraisal that is nearing completion.
As Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I want to play my part in the Executive in capturing opportunities such as the proposed multi-sports stadium. Those once-in-a-generation opportunities have to be approached with a creative and open mind, and all stakeholders have to be prepared to subordinate narrow local interests in the advancement of the wider public interests.
I fully intend to discharge my responsibilities in that regard and to take whatever steps are necessary to inform the public about the process of reaching decisions on the proposed multi-sports stadium, regardless of what decisions are ultimately taken. An important milestone in that process will be the completion of the various stadium designs, infrastructure design, environmental impact assessment, other pre-planning application processes and private-sector development partner competition.
To conclude, I have outlined today the policy framework that I inherited on taking office, underpinned by several million pounds of financial appraisal, project development and pre-planning exercises subsequently commissioned by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. All those exercises are nearing completion.
A new stadium for Northern Ireland has been discussed for the past 10 to 15 years without any prospect of actual delivery to date. The situation regarding the staging of future international soccer matches is particularly pressing. Please note in particular the content of the letter of 16 July 2007 that I received from the chief executive of the Irish Football Association.
Decisions on the future use of the Maze site and investment in Northern Ireland’s sporting and cultural infrastructure are, ultimately, matters to be determined by the Northern Ireland devolved Administration, acting in the public interest. My immediate priority is to ensure that the various work streams related to the proposed stadium are completed, analysed and factored into the deliberations of the Executive. That will help to provide an evidence-based framework within which informed decisions can be made.
I realise that my opening statement was long and quite detailed, and I thank the Committee for bearing with me through it. I am happy to answer questions.
The Chairperson: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive presentation. I know that members will have been reading between the lines, as well as listening to his words.
I will hand over to the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Mr David McNarry. Before doing so, I ask everyone to ensure that their mobile phones are switched off.
Mr McNarry: Minister, you are welcome to the meeting. I preface my remarks by saying that I doubt neither your integrity in the matter that is under discussion, nor the way in which you have handled it.
Given the number of documents that you have kindly given us, you can see how we could accuse you of leading us into a paper chase. Once this meeting was announced, however, we were suddenly able to get the necessary information. It would have been nice to have received it some time ago. One wonders why someone was keeping it from us. Perhaps you will address that issue.
Given recent media interest in this matter, it is also correct that I ask you directly whether you are in charge of your Department or whether your senior DUP colleagues are running it for you. We need an answer to that, particularly if any deadlines are to be moved.
Where do you stand on deadlines? You set a deadline of the end of June for receipt of proposals for options and alternatives for the siting of the multi-sports stadium. At present, do you have — or are you expecting — any options or alternatives? Will you now extend the previous deadline, which you closed, for options and alternatives to be forwarded to you, or should proposals now be sent to you through the new route that you introduced — PricewaterhouseCoopers — which, according to the final business plan, will deal with the proposals?
Five of the documents that you gave us spring to mind. They are all final reports, including: a final report in May 2004 from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company with which you are currently dealing; a revised business plan from August 2005; a final report dated August 2005 on the economic appraisal; a master plan; and a final report on the implementation strategy, dated May 2006. That master plan makes very good reading, and I am grateful that we have it. However, you have come to tell us that we will receive a final business plan by October. Can we believe you? Will that plan really be final, given that since 2004 we have had five final reports? When was the final business plan commissioned? Did you commission it? When did that happen? If you commissioned it, why did you not tell us that you had done so?
The Chairperson: You have asked quite a lot of questions.
Mr McNarry: I have a lot more.
The Chairperson: I will allow you another few seconds.
Mr Poots: I am happy to deal with all those questions now.
The Chairperson: OK; that is how we will proceed.
Mr Poots: There is a final report on the site-selection process. There were initial business plans, which have all been completed. We are now looking at the economic appraisal.
Mr McNarry: There was a final report on the economic appraisal in 2005.
Mr Poots: Green book policy states that an economic appraisal must be undertaken in order to proceed. The business plans that were produced prior to 2005 dealt with site identification and whether a multi-sports stadium would be financially viable, irrespective of its location.
We are now going through an economic appraisal on which the three governing bodies of the sports that are involved are also working. Therefore, each sport is involved in that development. Regarding deadlines —
Mr McNarry: May I interrupt you? Who commissioned that?
Mr Poots: I did not commission any of those reports. I said at the outset of the meeting that I had inherited a process.
Mr McNarry: You were aware all along that the final business plan would not be ready until the autumn, yet you have concealed that from us.
Mr Poots: I did not conceal it.
Mr McNarry: Did you know that?
Mr Poots: I did not conceal anything from anyone.
Mr McNarry: Did you not think that it was important to tell us about it?
Mr Poots: I have always said that my Department and I would not make final decisions about the economic appraisal until we had the final reports. If Members were not aware of — or were not paying attention to — the fact that the business plan would not be ready until the autumn, that is a matter for them. I have not concealed that from the public at any point. I have always made it clear that any decisions would be based on value for money, affordability and the implications for the stadium of the shared future strategy.
Questions have been asked about deadlines, and it is important that I deal with that matter. It was important to factor in as much information as possible into the final economic appraisal. I have been told repeatedly that there are other viable alternatives. Therefore, from 17 April 2007, when I was appointed a designate Minister prior to taking office on 8 May, I made it clear that I wanted to hear about those viable alternatives so that they could be put on the table and considered. The economic appraisal should be completed before the end of the summer, in a matter of weeks, rather than months. In the preparation of that appraisal, if qualitative information were provided on other alternatives, it could be incorporated into the report. In the absence of that, a virtual Belfast alternative will have to be created using only the information that DCAL, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the SIB and others are already aware of. It is unfortunate that the Department will have to consider that virtual model without the benefit of more detailed information that might have been made available to us. I hope that that deals with Mr McNarry’s questions.
Mr McCarthy: Thank you very much, Minister, for coming to the meeting this morning.
I am glad to hear you make so much reference to the impact of the shared future policy on the matter under discussion. Most of the parties in Northern Ireland are committed to a shared future. Can you, as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, give a commitment to the Committee that you are signed up to a multi-sports stadium that will contribute to a shared future and that you will reject any proposals to refurbish separate sporting grounds in Northern Ireland?
Can you produce evidence that the Irish Football Association, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and Ulster Rugby are also committed to a shared future through a multi-sports stadium sited at the Maze and that no other site in Northern Ireland — certainly none in Belfast — has that commitment from the three sporting bodies?
Finally, when will the PricewaterhouseCoopers updated business plan and the business case for the multi-sports stadium be available for scrutiny? What consideration has been given to briefing this Committee? Are there any specific dates on which the Committee will need to be available to scrutinise issues relating to the multi-sports stadium?
Mr Poots: I am committed to a shared future and to developing a multi-sports stadium in that context. Over the past few months, people have seen the benefits that a shared future can bring to Northern Ireland.
I am not going to reject anything at this point. I have asked that we examine the cost and benefits that would be derived from the refurbishment of existing stadiums; the shared future policy will be factored into that process. I will then make recommendations on all those matters to the Executive, which will subsequently make a decision on the issue. I will not make the decision as a stand-alone Minister.
When DCAL receives the PricewaterhouseCoopers economic appraisal towards the end of the summer, staff will scrutinise and make a full assessment of the report. I will make that available to the Committee at the earliest opportunity. I have taken the conscious decision to make all reports available to the Committee.
To answer why the reports are being made available now and not sooner, one issue is that sensitive negotiations have been taking place among the governing bodies of the three sports. Some of the information that each governing body was sharing with the Department was not being shared with the other governing bodies. The Department was also negotiating with naming-rights partners and, ultimately, some of the information in the reports was sensitive to those negotiations. However, the negotiations are well advanced. The sporting bodies have shared the relevant information, and, subsequent to that, I informed them that it was my intention to release the papers.
As soon as possible, I intend to release papers because doing so will help people to identify the Department’s viewpoint. It will also help people to recognise that there is a proper process and that, irrespective of the outcome, the processes have been robust and can withstand scrutiny.
The Chairperson: Minister, can you be more specific about the timetable? As Kieran asked, when will the updated business case become available? There seems to be a tendency for the Department to talk about the “summer” or the “autumn”, but, if possible, the Committee would like to narrow that down to specific weeks or months.
Mr Poots: The Department anticipates receiving the reports on certain dates. However, deadlines can slip for two or three weeks. The reports are well advanced, and I would like to receive them in August. I believe that British summertime ends officially on 21 September. The Department would like to receive the reports before then, but I cannot give specific guarantees to the Committee, other than to say that I hope to receive them before the end of August. As I said, however, their completion may run beyond that. The reports will be extensive, requiring a large degree of analysis.
I have made it clear that to help members to draw their conclusions, I will make the reports available to the Committee as soon as possible.
Mr McCausland: I have several short, specific questions, so it might be better for me to ask them separately and receive an answer to each of them in turn.
My first question concerns ‘A Shared Future’ and the acceptability, or otherwise, to each of the three sports of a stadium in Belfast. Several of the documents state that a Belfast venue would be unacceptable to the three sports. Which of the three sports has stated that a Belfast venue would be unacceptable? Can the Committee have copies of the documentation that makes that position clear?
Mr Poots: That position is contained in one of the reports. I appreciate that the Committee might not have had an opportunity to read all of them — they are thick documents, and it will probably take members most of the summer to scrutinise the details.
Mr McCausland: On which page is that information?
Mr Whitehead: It is on page 41 of the August 2005 economic appraisal.
Mr Poots: That is the economic appraisal titled ‘A Major Multi-Sports Stadium for Northern Ireland’.
Mr McCausland: What does it say on page 41?
Mr Poots: It states:
“GAA — would not contemplate participation in a stadium located on one of the two Belfast sites.”
That refers to the Titanic Quarter and the north foreshore, because the other sites were excluded in the site-selection process.
Mr McCausland: Thank you for drawing my attention to page 41. The rugby governing body would prefer a Belfast site.
Mr Poots: It has a preference.
Mr McCausland: The IFA has identified that it would prefer the Maze site. Apparently, it does not want a Belfast site. I find that interesting given the fact that most football supporters would prefer a Belfast site.
Clearly, the body that is dogmatic about the positioning of the stadium is the GAA. The language used is quite strong: if the stadium were to be sited in Belfast, it “would not contemplate participation”. It is clear that the GAA is, in a sense, holding a veto.
Mr Poots: The GAA would not contemplate either of the two Belfast sites that were put to it. Originally, Belfast City Council identified six possible sites. Of the six sites that were shortlisted, two remain — the north foreshore and the Titanic Quarter. Subsequent to the shortlisting exercise, the Titanic Quarter management board withdrew from the process because it wished to develop that site differently and felt that it could get better value for money from its land. That left the site at the north foreshore.
The GAA rejected the north foreshore site. Everything was predicated on the four political parties and the three sporting organisations being on board from the outset, so any one of those bodies could have stopped the process at any time.
Mr McCausland: Is it possible for members to receive copies of the correspondence from the GAA in which it sets out its position on the site and copies of the letter from the Community Relations Council that states that a Belfast site would not be acceptable?
Mr Poots: AsTony Whitehead represents the SIB today, I shall ask him whether it, in conjunction with the GAA, is willing to make that information available, because it is not mine to release.
The Chairperson: Minister, does the GAA have concerns about the dimensions of the pitch and the requirement to accommodate 40,000 spectators? Is that another factor in the equation?
Mr Poots: I will pass that question over to Mr Whitehead.
Mr Whitehead: All the information contained in the business plan, the economic appraisal and the stadium design is being developed after consultation with — and with the considerable involvement of — senior representatives of the three sporting bodies. Purely as a matter of courtesy, I want to consult them first and get their agreement before putting any further information into the public domain. That applies particularly to any requests for information this morning, whether they relate to the business plan, business case or stadium design.
Specifically, the size of the GAA pitch is one of the issues that was dealt with during the stadium design exercise that is being carried out in association with HOK Sport, the stadium designers. It is designing a multi-sports stadium that can accommodate the requirements of all three sporting bodies through a combination of technologies that allow the pitch to be different sizes for different sports.
The Chairperson: I will now move on to —
Mr McCausland: I said that I had several short questions.
The Chairperson: I like the word “short”, and I hope that you keep to that, Nelson.
Mr McCausland: I will. Is the Strategic Investment Board covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
Mr Whitehead: Yes.
Mr McCausland: I missed page 41 of the economic appraisal. However, in relation to the state of Windsor Park, page 51 of the same document, dated August 2005, states:
“The IFA would have to find an alternative venue outside Northern Ireland to host international games.”
The IFA was aware that there was a problem in August 2005, and Howard Wells returns to the same point in his letter of July 2007. Is the Committee aware of what the IFA has been doing during the intervening two years? In particular, what has Howard Wells been doing to address any deficiencies in Windsor Park to ensure that games will not have to be moved elsewhere?
Mr Poots: My understanding is that the IFA has been negotiating with football’s governing bodies to enable Northern Ireland to continue playing international football at Windsor Park, on the basis that a new stadium is developed. Therefore, the team can stay at Windsor Park only if there is major refurbishment that would involve replacing several stands or if a new stadium is developed.
Mr McCausland: My point is that it will be several years before there is a new stadium — if and wherever it is built — and that where the Northern Ireland team plays will be an issue until then. However, the IFA has known about that for two years. What has it been doing about investing in the physical upgrade of Windsor Park?
Mr Poots: The IFA has been negotiating an outcome whereby international football can be played in a new stadium in Northern Ireland and, in the meantime, the IFA would be allowed to spend modest amounts of money supporting the existing stadium. It is a complex situation: Linfield Football Club owns the stadium, and the IFA owns one particular stand. However, it is largely the football club’s responsibility to maintain the stadium to an acceptable standard.
Some matters relate directly to the contract between the IFA and Linfield Football Club. It would be wholly inappropriate for me or the Committee to get involved, as we are all aware of the legal issues. Nonetheless, I know that the IFA has been negotiating with the governing bodies of football to ensure that the Northern Ireland football team can continue to play in Northern Ireland until a new stadium can be built. However, they need a decision on that issue.
Mr McCausland: The IFA has been deficient, through the absence of investment over the past two years, in ensuring that Windsor Park would be in order, which would have prevented the difficulties with which we are now faced. Finally, why was the bid for the 2013 World Police and Fire Games predicated on having a stadium on which no decision has been made?
Mr Poots: I thought that you might be in a better position to answer that.
Mr McCausland: There were DCAL officials away in the farthest corners of the world as well.
Mr Poots: The bid was supported by DCAL but was led by Belfast City Council. Why Belfast City Council —
Mr McCausland: And DCAL.
Mr Poots: Why Belfast City Council, supported by DCAL, would place such an emphasis on having a multi-sports stadium at the Maze as part of that bid is something that should be raised in another forum and at another venue.
Mr McCausland: That also needs to be raised with DCAL, because it was a party to the bid.
The Chairperson: To prove that there is life beyond Belfast and Lisburn, I hand over to Pat Ramsey.
Mr P Ramsey: I welcome the Minister, his officials, and their honesty and integrity in bringing the report to the Committee this morning. There are a number of questions that party leaders should be asking, which I will ask so that the Minister can respond.
The main objective of the panel that was set up by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister was to get agreement among the party leaders and to look at Northern Ireland objectively in order to get a stadium that is fit for purpose for a shared future. That took place, and agreement was reached, to which parties and their leaders signed up. Therefore, rather than quizzing the Minister on why the Maze was selected, members should be asking their respective party leaders.
My concern — and I support the Maze project — is the time frame for the planning process. There must be a deadline after which the soil is cut and construction begins.
In response to Nelson: as the Minister correctly said, a lot of detailed and sensitive discussion has taken place with the three sporting bodies. Rather than the GAA vetoing proposals for other sites, there was agreement among the sporting bodies that the Maze was the most suitable site for all the parties. It is not fair to say that the GAA vetoed other proposals. With regard to the north foreshore site, there is a lottery bid for a big park there, which means that the option of using that site for a stadium is no longer on the table.
Minister, were any letters, proposals or submissions made to the Department — even if they were at a very early stage — by your declared deadline of the end of June? It is important to have a final appraisal of the project in its entirety, not only from the economic perspective but as regards shared space and a shared future.
The people of Northern Ireland are crying out for leadership and want politicians to put money where their mouths are so that young people can be brought together to participate in and watch sport outside their natural environment. Minister, I am very interested to know when the deadline will be, so that the opportunity to bring the 2013 World Police and Fire Games and part of the 2012 Olympic Games to Northern Ireland is not missed. When is the ultimate deadline?
Mr Poots: The end of the timeline for decision-making was always going to be at the close of 2007. All the preparations were being put in place for that date. Planning issues such as the traffic impact assessments, environmental impact assessments and planning preparation are scheduled to coincide with the economic appraisal that is being completed, and they will be analysed, assessed and made ready to be presented to the Executive.
By the autumn of this year, many of those issues will have come together. That should allow a decision to proceed to be made at the end of 2007. It is important to maintain that timeline if Northern Ireland is to play a role in staging Olympic events. However, the most pressing issue is that of international football being played in Northern Ireland.
I have received other proposals, and I am grateful to those who have visited me and written to me, including those people who are involved in the Belfast bid. A letter from one of the Belfast bidders states:
“We also confirmed our welcome for your initiative to bring the current impasse between the two competing venues to a head. The uncertainty as to the outcome on this issue has had a negative impact on the development of detailed proposals and we look forward to your intervention bringing a resolution to this one way or another.”
I am not interested in vacuums; we have had vacuums in Northern Ireland for long enough. I am interested in gathering and garnering the right information, assessing it and making a recommendation on which the Executive can make a decision. The timescale is that the final decision will be made by the end of 2007, and the final planning application will be made thereafter. Interest has also been expressed from parties in Londonderry, Larne and, indeed, another venue was mooted.
Mr McNarry: Would you take Newtownards seriously as a location if I expressed an interest? How serious are the expressions of interest that you have mentioned?
Mr Poots: I am prepared to consider in the final report any serious proposals that meet the criteria.
Mr P Ramsey: Will the Minister give a commitment that all stadiums across Northern Ireland will be examined for potential modernisation and refurbishment in a roll-on programme? I refer specifically to stadiums in my constituency: the Brandywell, Derry City’s home ground; and the Riverside Stadium in the Waterside, Institute Football Club’s home ground. A modernisation programme must create benefits for the regions in Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots: That is an important point. Sometimes I get weary dealing with one stadium while others ignore the other stadiums in Northern Ireland. Stadiums in Northern Ireland fall well below the standards of those elsewhere. Given that the Department and the Committee represent sporting interests in the Assembly, they face a challenge to ensure that Northern Ireland has better-quality stadiums. I currently have funding available in the soccer strategy, and the Department is bidding for further funding in the second investment strategy for Northern Ireland(ISNI 2). The Department has a commitment to upgrade stadiums across Northern Ireland. Towards the end of his letter, Howard Wells indicates that a larger stadium, which would generate greater income for the IFA, would have a filter-down effect and that much of the money that would be generated as a result would go towards the grass-roots development of football. I want to see better-quality local facilities. The decision on a national stadium will have an impact on that, and the final reports may cover that in greater detail.
The Chairperson: I will not say, David, that I am focused on Croke Park for September.
Mr McNarry: What happens there?
Lord Browne: I thank the Minister for furnishing the Committee with a considerable document, which has taken a great deal of time to read. I fully appreciate that the previous direct rule Administration appointed the Strategic Investment Board to carry out the appraisal. However, I note that your letter of 20 July states that the outline business case will consider appraisals of all the options for comparative purposes, including those in Belfast.
For Belfast, you have mentioned only the north foreshore option, but there are many others including Ormeau Park and Blanchflower Park. Has DCAL been actively considering its own options for Belfast?
Mr Poots: Ormeau Park and Blanchflower Park were excluded during the site-selection process. DCAL incorporated options that it felt fitted with current planning and road-infrastructure policies as enacted by other Departments. DCAL does not see the benefit of pursuing options that have been identified as unlikely to succeed, and it would be better to pursue a Belfast option that is the most likely to proceed. The methodology used is the reason that the north foreshore in Belfast was considered in the report.
The policy framework stipulates that the development of the sports stadium should fit in with the agenda of ‘A Shared Future’. It should have the support of the three sports bodies — football, rugby and Gaelic; have an operationally viable stadium business plan; be a specifically identified site that is deliverable within a reasonable timescale against current planning and transport requirements; and have an identified public and private funding package. We do not preclude anyone from working to meet those requirements, and we will listen to proposals for other options if that work is done.
The Department cannot spend public money in contradiction of previous advice, and we have received advice that the north foreshore would be likely to achieve planning approval and that other stadium proposals would not. That is why they were excluded during the site-selection process.
The Chairperson: The north foreshore fell short on a deliverability requirement. What does that mean?
Mr Poots: Much was down to commercial deliverability. However, I will bring in Tony Whitehead, who was involved in the site-selection process.
Mr Whitehead: The assessment of deliverability for all 12 sites included elements such as site contamination — in other words, what is in the ground. A significant issue for the north foreshore was landfill, and as a result, it would be more expensive to build a stadium. There would also be less room to put in the adjacent facilities required. That is why the technical appraisal concluded that the Maze was ahead of the north foreshore, even before we discussed the sites with the sports bodies.
Lord Browne: The Minister mentioned transport and roads. Has a final road cost been approved by the Roads Service and the Department for Regional Development? Also, has a full transport model been worked up for all the shortlisted sites and, if so, will those figures be released to the public?
Mr Poots: The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is leading on the traffic impact assessment. In the initial proposals for the Maze, some £45 million was envisaged for upgrading the roads. DCAL will require 60 acres for the stadium, which is about one sixth of that site. Therefore, one sixth of the cost of upgrading roads will be attributable to the stadium. Other aspects of the site will bear their share of road costs.
Mr K Robinson: Thank you, Minister, for coming and for being so open with us. You have been hoisted, if not by your own petard, then by the one that you have inherited. The shared future aspect is causing all sorts of problems that would not normally be faced by sporting bodies. If we were considering a straightforward sports stadium, this problem would have been solved long ago.
I am a wee bit bemused that one of the sporting bodies has concluded that the Belfast sites are not suitable and will not contemplate them. When infrastructure is considered, Belfast provides a gateway to the Province. The background infrastructure — restaurants, hotels, transport, and so forth — is already there. The environmental impact of a stadium in Belfast would be much less than it would be at the Maze. The Department’s technical report states that the Maze site:
“Will tend to be car dominated destination”.
That is probably an understatement. Transport links to that site are non-existent. The potential for Northern Ireland Railways to provide a rail link is a non-starter because of costs. Motorway costs are incredible. I wonder what the total environmental impact will be on that site. Mr Whitehead referred to contamination on the north foreshore site. Are there any contaminants on the Maze site, such as asbestos? If so, have they been dealt with or fully assessed?
I ask the Minister to consider — although I am not quite sure how to phrase it — the “theatre of dreams” aspect of the stadium, which has been mentioned. A stadium at the Maze would have a somewhat isolated position. It will stick out, not so much as a white elephant but as a rather strange structure; certainly not the “icon” that is referred to in the report published in 2005, which is another lengthy document. A stadium in the Belfast area — at the north foreshore, the Titanic Quarter or somewhere nearby — will fit in much better with the local environment. I cede to that point wearing another hat — that of a Newtownabbey councillor. Newtownabbey Borough Council offered the best site of all, the Valley Park, but you chose to ignore it. It is the most scenic site in Northern Ireland. However, one cannot win them all. The physical impact of a stadium in Belfast would generate so much confidence in the whole community that it is worthy of consideration.
My great fear is that, an extraordinary amount of time and money having already been spent, more money will be poured into a sporting black hole. In the past, there have been industrial black holes and educational black holes. Will the stadium become a sporting black hole? Nothing that I have read in the document has convinced me that a stadium at the Maze site is viable. That argument is still nebulous.
The one group that seems to have been left out is the supporters. The only reference to them in the document states that they will be expected to pay higher prices, presumably because there will be better facilities. However, there will be a price hike for the ordinary supporter, who will not be able to walk to the stadium but will have to rely on public transport: 30% of Northern Irish folk do not have access to a car. Surely an equality impact assessment is, therefore, also required. Where will supporters go after the match? They will get back onto their buses or into their cars. There will be no social contact or critical mass. I am concerned that there is nothing in the document to convince me that those matters have been taken seriously. They appear to have been pushed to the side.
Spectators, with the possible exception of GAA spectators, will be extremely far away from the field of play. Both rugby and football supporters like to be close to the action. The football supporter likes to have end-on viewing from behind the goal. However, he will be so far away that he will need a passport to get to the front of the stadium to see what is going on. Those are technical difficulties. I can see the Minister’s colleague shaking his head. Perhaps he will tell me whether I will need to take my binoculars along in order to see who is playing if I am standing behind the goal in the new stadium.
Mr Whitehead: I will address that issue.
Mr K Robinson: There are many issues that must be addressed. The spectator is key to the whole project. I have not detected any real enthusiasm from the governing bodies in anything that I have read in the report. They simply accept the fact that the stadium will be provided and that they will muck in and do certain things. That is the extent of the governing bodies’ commitment to the stadium. Would the Minister like to comment on those points?
Mr Poots: I remember that when Ken was a member of the Committee of the Centre, he always asked several questions in one go. It is good to see that he has not changed.
With regard to environmental impact, I am aware that there are areas of contamination at the former Maze Prison site. For example, there was a target-practice range where shooting would have taken place, so there is some lead contamination. However, that is of a modest level. There are also diesel spills that occurred when the Army was on the site, and a modest amount of asbestos. The contamination at the Maze is incomparable to that which would exist at a landfill site. That is supported by the various reports that have been, and will be, published and which indicate costs. An environmental impact assessment is being carried out on the site.
Interestingly, Jonathon Porritt from the Sustainable Development Commission has identified the Maze as a site where significant benefits can be derived for the environment. It would be useful if the Committee could obtain his article on the Maze proposal.
Mr K Robinson: Can you specifically address the car-parking arrangements — which would have to be fairly massive at the Maze site — and the run-off potential into the River Lagan, which I presume is a salmonid river and therefore demands higher protection than most normal watercourses? Has that been investigated by your Department?
Mr Poots: All of that work is being done through the environmental impact assessment. The traffic impact assessment will deal with all the travel arrangements, and we will assess that when it is completed. The Department is keeping a watching brief on that, and there is no evidence to suggest that there is anything to be particularly uncomfortable about at this point.
You mentioned supporters; I agree that supporters are important. In particular, football supporters have indicated that they are uncomfortable about moving from Windsor Park to the Maze. We must take that on board. I have engaged with the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, and I am happy to continue to do so. On radio programmes after the leaking of the Miller Partnership Report, the message that I heard clearly from supporters was that they did not want to have to go outside Northern Ireland to watch football. If there is an issue about travelling to the Maze, there is a greater issue about travelling to Scotland, England or the South of Ireland to watch our international team play.
Ultimately, we must make decisions based on the information that is provided to us and on our ability to deliver what people want. The options that are available may not be the most desirable, but sometimes the desirable is unobtainable, and the obtainable is undesirable. I trust that we will reach the point where we will have something both obtainable and desirable for the best future for Northern Ireland. I invite Mr Whitehead to respond to your question —
Mr K Robinson: Mr Whitehead is very anxious to respond to that question.
Mr Whitehead: One of the beauties of having HOK Sport, which has very experienced stadium designers, on board is that it tries to come up with solutions that meet client requirements. Mr Robinson has been extremely persistent in raising the issue of the size of the GAA pitch. There was potential for the spectators to be too far away from the pitch for football or rugby. However, through the use of stadium technology, by bringing forward the ends through the use of rollers and similar technology, the multi-sports stadium design has the first seats just 15 metres behind the goal for football matches; the Alex Russell stand at Windsor Park is 18 metres behind the goal. The design solution for the multi-sports stadium brings football fans closer to the goal than they are currently.
Mr K Robinson: Regarding the rolling stadium, can you explain in detail how the seating profile is changed? What happens to it — how does it roll out, or roll in, and what is the profile from the ground level up?
Mr Whitehead: Effectively, both ends are brought in. That is contained in the detailed HOK Sport designs that are currently being worked through in consultation with the three sporting bodies and which will form part of the detailed economic appraisal and planning application process later in the year. Broadly speaking, the ends are brought in through technology, so that for football and rugby games, the ends are nearer, and then they can be rolled back out again for GAA pitches. Of course, as the stadium is being designed in accordance with C90 sight-line requirements, that ensures that the minimum acceptable sight-line requirements are in place for all three sports.
Mr K Robinson: Has that costing been built into the figures that we have seen?
Mr Whitehead: The stadium will be fully costed in the current design that is being developed with HOK Sport and the three sports, and that is the design that will go into the economic appraisal and the planning application process. We are two years further on from those reports and the design assumptions contained in them.
Mr K Robinson: We are two years further on from the report that we have just spent the weekend reading — is that correct?
Mr Whitehead: A public procurement competition for the stadium design was held last autumn, and the HOK Sport team was chosen from international competition in December. Each of the three sports was asked to nominate a representative to sit on the stadium design group along with the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, and they have been working with HOK Sport for the past eight to nine months on a specific stadium design.
Mr K Robinson: Therefore, has the profile that I have looked at in the documentation been replaced by something else?
Mr Whitehead: It has been further developed. The profile in the documentation provides an initial framework for the development of a detailed design. In order to have a full planning application process, there has to be a detailed stadium design that meets certain criteria.
Mr K Robinson: Therefore, the report on the detailed stadium that I was looking at last night has been replaced by another report on an even more detailed stadium?
Mr Whitehead: You were looking at a high-level concept design that has been replaced by more detailed designs.
Mr Brolly: Does the Minister agree that we should be concerned that when we talk about the shared future element of the stadium, although we are talking about the future, we are thinking about the present?
Ken’s points about infrastructure reminded me of the building of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Like Barry, Archbishop John Joseph Hughes was a very clever Tyrone man.
The Chairperson: That is right. Thank you, Francie. I am very emotional.
Mr Brolly: The site that Archbishop Hughes chose for the cathedral was in the middle of nowhere in a new New York, and the cathedral was described initially as Hughes’s Folly. As anybody who is familiar with New York will know, the cathedral is in what is now the centre of the city.
Therefore, when we talk about a shared future, we must really talk about the future. We must talk about what will happen in 20, 30, 40 or 50 years’ time. We must consider what the people of that time will think if we get stuck in all the petty arguments about current problems and not think about the world that our grandchildren and people who have not yet been born will be living in then.
Mr Poots: The environmental impact of this development is important for the future. Environmental considerations are being brought to our attention ever more often. Strong consideration will be given to environmental issues, and we will seek to minimise any environmental damage.
Mr McNarry: Minister, I agree with you, and I thank you for your frankness. Given the way in which Ken Robinson’s questions were addressed, I am sure that my colleagues agree with me that we need to do this again, Edwin.
Mr Poots: Yes.
Mr McNarry: The Committee needs your assurance that we will have all the information. We are trying to grill you in order to get answers, and you are being pretty decent in giving them, but we are dealing with information that is two years old and that we have received only recently. You are still keeping some information from us —
Mr Poots: I have not yet seen a copy of the economic appraisal because it is not finished.
Mr McNarry: You set deadlines for June. How are we supposed to run a Committee when we are working to your deadlines, which are subsequently changed, meaning that information is received late?
Today’s meeting has not been a waste of time; it has been pretty open. However, we cannot decide our next moves unless you work with us — as you have said that you will — and bring those papers to us before you bring them to the Executive. I hope that that will happen. There is no point in bringing the papers to the Executive and then bringing them to us. We need to scrutinise them, which I think was the import of Kieran’s question at the very beginning of the meeting.
Three issues must be considered if the stadium is to be built at the Maze site: the prospect of there being a shrine to terrorists on the same site; the fact that the GAA — and we now know this, but we did not know this before — has refused to consider a site in Belfast; and, as it is hanging in the balance, the immediate future of international soccer, to which you referred.
I would like Howard Wells to appear before the Committee again. The letter that he sent to the Minister alarmed me. It in no way relates to anything that he told the Committee. In fact, he was the least effective of all the people who gave a presentation to us. Mr Wells needs to appear before the Committee again so that we can give him a good grilling. I think that he escaped that the last time. Now that I am more aware of the facts, he certainly will not get away with it again, and I am grateful to the Minister for giving us copies of his letter.
In the case where the Maze is used as the site for an international stadium, will unionist indignation over the prospect of a terrorist shrine impact heavily on your decision-making process and the resulting recommendations? In others words, would a shrine be compatible with a sporting venue such as the one proposed?
We have talked about Linfield and Windsor Park. Would it be possible to work around the existing contracts? Sports people often do so, particularly those involved in soccer. I do not know whether the contractual problems between the IFA and Linfield will be sorted out by the autumn. Although you said that you would be making a decision, I do not believe that you can do so until the overshadowing contractual problem involving Windsor Park is resolved, because that will have a significant bearing on one of the sports involved. Do you think that it would be possible to work around the contracts?
Howard Wells has said that he may want to hold two friendly matches outside Northern Ireland — that is smoke and mirrors. That might be acceptable in order to generate revenue, but why should those friendly matches not be held in Northern Ireland? Why is Northern Ireland playing two international matches in the near future?
What are we going to do about Northern Ireland’s imminent participation in the World Cup? Is there any way that DCAL would be prepared to implement a minimum-cost provision that would allow home internationals and friendly games to be played in Northern Ireland and therefore at Windsor Park? If you could give me a response, that would be great, but I do not require an immediate answer.
As part of the discussions about the three sports concerned, Francie Brolly spoke about a shared future, and the GAA, whose excellent presentation was professional and impressive, said in answer to one of my questions that they want to play Ulster finals in Ulster. The fact that they do not want to go to Croke Park impressed me.
The Chairperson: Do not forget that Clones is also in Ulster.
Mr McNarry: There is no national stadium planned for Clones. The GAA wants to play Ulster finals in Ulster, where they can accommodate 45,000 spectators. In the past, the GAA has been allowed to resist using Belfast. I am not bartering, and in any case I am a Glentoran supporter, but it is only fair that the Minister should have some room to work with representatives of Windsor Park in order to secure the immediate future of international football. That immediate future includes the matches that are due to happen. The threats of that fellow Wells should be taken out of the picture. Somebody needs to do that because he is dictating terms. I do not know his agenda, but it is not good for football ambassadors to have the chief executive of the IFA talking about taking football out of Northern Ireland.
The Chairperson: How many questions is that, Minister?
Mr Poots: I am not sure.
Mr McNarry: There were only two questions.
Mr Poots: As the Minister with responsibility for sport, I would be horrified if we had to play our international football anywhere other than Northern Ireland, and I will seek to ensure that that is not the case. Can I give a guarantee today? No, I cannot, because I do not have the required figures to present to the Executive in order to ask for a specific amount of money to ensure that international football stays in Northern Ireland and to persuade the Executive to agree with me that that is a priority. However, I cannot go to the Executive without those figures.
I am aware of the report by the Miller Partnership, which is due to publish a final report this month. Ultimately, Northern Ireland sport may have problems with a 14,000-capacity stadium. However, if the IFA has difficulty in making ends meet, it will have greater difficulties if the south stand at Windsor Park, for example, must close, which is a realistic prospect. Alternatively, spending the amount of money necessary to refurbish Windsor Park to a good standard once again would involve closing significant parts of the stadium for a time, which would prevent a considerable number of people from watching their favourite sport.
Danny Murphy, the secretary of the Ulster GAA, has telephoned me to assure me of his continuing support for the development of a multi-sports stadium. He has made it clear that the GAA is committed to the project as part of the shared future strategy. Many unionist people have been critical of the GAA for many years, but I welcome the fact that the GAA has given a commitment to a shared future, which is in the wider interests of Northern Ireland.
The issue of part of the Maze site becoming a shrine to terrorism is for another Department to consider. However, I will not fudge the issue or walk away from it. Ultimately, no unionist will accept a proposal that would glorify terrorism. The development of the site requires cross-community consensus, and unionists will not support anything that suggests that terrorism or the killing of innocent individuals was right. That is the bottom line.
Mr McNarry: That view must be taken into consideration.
Mr Poots: It must be taken into consideration, of course. However, if I make a proposal to the Executive or to the Assembly that requires cross-community support and cannot get that support, there is no point in making that proposal in the first place. It is for another Department to deal with that issue, and I shall wait to see what proposals that Department produces. However, I am concentrating my focus on the development of a multi-sports stadium for Northern Ireland in order to avoid some of the situations that were discussed earlier.
Mr McCausland: I welcome the fact that some work will now be done on calculating the cost of refurbishing Windsor Park to the standard required to host international matches. The tragedy is that the problem was known as far back as August 2005, and the IFA — Howard Wells and company — obviously did nothing about it. That is a deep disappointment.
I have some questions about transport access to the Maze site. It is imperative these days to maximise transport access in a way that is most beneficial to the environment. The site selection document states that there is potential for a rail link from the stadium to Lisburn and Belfast. However, it is far from clear whether a rail link will be built as part of the stadium development. If a halt were to be built, it would be situated one and a half miles away from the stadium, and patrons would therefore have to complete their journeys by bus or on foot. There are additional issues around the maximum capacity of the railway line. Is any information available on the cost of installing a rail halt or on the additional cost of installing a rail link of one and a half miles between the stadium and the proposed halt? Perhaps those costs are mentioned in the documentation.
Mr Poots: The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should answer those questions. However, Mr Whitehead can respond to those questions as he has been closely involved in the project.
Mr Whitehead: We are in the middle of the final stages of the private-sector development partner bid process for the Maze site. We are about to put the project out for final tender documents, and a great deal of commercial negotiation is ongoing. I hope that the Committee will understand that I cannot say now what I might like to say later in the year. However, I can say that part of those private-sector partner negotiations are —
Mr McNarry: Come on. This is a Committee meeting: if you cannot answer, do not come.
Mr McCausland: It is absolutely scandalous and appalling that a person in the public sector can say to elected politicians, “I cannot tell you.” That information should be here now to inform our decisions. The SIB is not the Strategic Investment Board; it is the secretive investment board.
Mr Poots: In fairness, anyone involved in commercial negotiations does not tell the public what he or she is doing.
Mr McCausland: I only asked the cost of a rail link.
Mr Poots: The public is made aware of what happened after the commercial negotiations have been concluded. That is the normal process. Mr Whitehead wants to continue.
Mr McNarry: He knows those costs; otherwise he could not have put his case together.
The Chairperson: Please let Mr Whitehead continue.
Mr Whitehead: In the negotiations, which will be completed by the autumn and will form part of the decision-making process, public and private transport strategy and environmental sustainability are high on the agenda and are highly ranked in the criteria for the choice of a private-sector development partner bidder.
The Chairperson: This will be the last question, Nelson, and please be brief.
Mr McCausland: Much has been said about the GAA’s commitment to a shared future and about addressing the issue of benign apartheid. Would the GAA not show a much greater commitment to a shared future, not by vetoing one particular venue but by dropping from its constitution the Irish nationalist ethos and aspiration that is the cause of apartheid in sport in Northern Ireland? It is the only sporting organisation in Northern Ireland to have a political dimension. That would be a real commitment to a shared future.
Mr Poots: That is a matter for Mr McCausland and the Committee to discuss with the GAA. It is not appropriate for me to discuss that matter.
The Chairperson: In your comments today, you reminded the Committee about the Maze consultation panel’s report, ‘A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh’, which included recommendations for a shared future, multi-sports stadium, and an international centre for conflict transformation. However, I am concentrating on the multi-sports stadium aspect. Has anything changed? In your comments today, Minister, you said that the panel’s report was endorsed by all four party leaders at the time. Has anything in the interim meant that the four main political parties have changed their views?
Mr Poots: At that time, I was aware that the direct rule Minister involved contacted all the party leaders individually; he asked them whether he had their permission to continue with the project and whether they supported it. The support of the three governing bodies of sport was also required. As far as I am aware, the direct rule Minister received that support from the party leaders and the sporting bodies. I am not aware of any change.
Lord Browne: In reply to the question on transport, the SIB said that it was going out to tender. What is the tender for, and when will it be completed?
Mr Whitehead: A formal tender process was kicked off in December 2006, with a formal European procurement notice for a private-sector development partner to take forward the entire 360-acre development of the Maze site, with the stadium being one element of that. The bid process has been ongoing since December, and the SIB has gone through a longlist and a shortlist, and it is now going out with the final bid stage for bidders to put their financial bids back on the table by the end of August.
Lord Browne: Who is on the shortlist?
Mr Whitehead: It is a matter of public record that there are three firms on the shortlist for the Maze site. There is a bid led by Laing O’Rourke, a bid that incorporates the Ross Perot Jnr consortium from America, and a bid that incorporates local firms such as Snoddons Construction and Farrans (Construction) Ltd.
The Chairperson: Thank you very much. Minister, do you want to make a final comment?
Mr Poots: I thank the Committee for the opportunity to attend its meeting. Fairly simple solutions to this problem pop up in various comments and statements. I trust that, from today’s discussion, it will be recognised that there is no simple solution. Ultimately, there is probably not one solution that will be perfect and will please everyone. However, we will put forward those proposals on the basis of the qualitative information we have sought to gather, and then make a decision based on that.
That may be a very difficult decision, and some people, including me, may be uncomfortable with it. Nonetheless, the decision will be taken in the best interests of the wider public in Northern Ireland. If I can provide further information to the Committee in September, I will do that. I am happy to work with the Committee and with my political colleagues to take the matter forward.
Mr McCarthy: As you said earlier, ‘A Shared Future’ is a priority in your determination.
The Chairperson: Thank you, Minister, for attending this special meeting during the summer recess. We may have to arrange another special single-issue meeting to develop further the issues that you raised today.
Mr Poots: I appreciate that the Committee has come together during the summer recess and that members have taken time out to attend.
The Chairperson: I thank the Minister and his senior colleagues, Mr Sweeney and Mr Whitehead, for attending today.