Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 06 March 2008

Multi-Sports Stadium

6 March 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witness:
Dr Duncan Morrow ) Community Relations Council

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):
Dr Morrow, I invite you to take your seat. I am sorry for keeping you late. It is at this point that I tell you that you have 10 minutes of the Committee’s time. [Laughter.] To clarify: you have up to 10 minutes to make your presentation after which, I hope, you will answer the questions that will undoubtedly arise. Thank you for attending; you are welcome.

Dr Duncan Morrow (Committee Relations Council):
Thank you, Deputy Chairman, and thanks to Committee members for inviting me to attend. I will refer back to the issues that were discussed the last time I briefed the Committee, and I will then take questions. There was a sense after our last meeting that we had not finished our conversation, which is why I am here today.

The Community Relations Council is committed to the promotion of a shared and better future. Therefore, it is with that commitment in mind that we have an interest in the sports stadium. A number of questions have to be asked, including whether a multi-sports stadium will be sustainable, whether it will be economical for the sports and whether it works for the governing bodies of the sports that are involved. Although those questions are ultra vires to our immediate question, it is important that they are asked.

Our understanding is that, to date, a number of business cases have been proposed, not of all which have been published, and that the Committee will deal with those matters as economic issues. The venue that seems to be up for discussion is the Maze. The Community Relations Council is aware that the issue of having a sports stadium at the Maze has been contested. However, we believe that a multi-sports stadiumoffers a visionary opportunity to change some of the symbolism associated with sport that has led to divisions in the community.

The question of whether there are other viable locations is important. It concerns me that, as yet, none have been identified. If other viable sites for a multi-sports stadium are available, they should be considered. The Maze site is certainly a viable option.

A multi-sports stadium would be hugely iconic. If it is viable, it is hard to think of an investment that would be more visible. I am not being naive about people from different communities mixing through individual sports; however, Sunderland has the Stadium of Light, and we could have a stadium of reconciliation.

There is a possibility that such a stadium would act as a business magnet, attract tourists and that it could be used for events other than sport. Furthermore, although the culture wars over sport are more or less finished, there is also a possibility that a multi-sports stadium could signify the definitive end of such wars.

I know that, before this evidence session started, the Deputy Chairperson said that he did not want the word “shrine” mentioned; however, we believe that the fact that the Maze site is being contested provides an important task for the community to overcome. In moving forward, even to a conflict transformation centre, the principles of sharing should be adopted to ensure that that task can be overcome. The same approach needs to be taken to the management of the process, and that management should be accountable to the Assembly.

It has been argued that four critical matters need to be addressed when considering the issue of shared space. First, it has to be the right location — a place to which people will and can go, and one that is safe and has value for everyone. Secondly, it has to be well managed to ensure that it is kept that way and that it remains owned by everyone — it should not simply be a question of a building. Thirdly, it should be useful; it will not be a real shared space unless it actually meets a need. It is important that it should be different to anything that already exists, which will mean that people will want to use it. Finally, it should be designed to enable it to become a well-used resource.

The council’s only interest is that the principle of sharing over separation — when possible — should be promoted. That issue has been raised by the sports governing bodies. As far as those bodies are concerned, that represents a real and visible leap — a change that, with regard to investment and Northern Ireland’s image, is important. Everything that happens with regard to the stadium should, fundamentally, look forward rather than backwards. The principle is to provoke new possibility, not simply to integrate an old site in people’s minds but to use its possibility. I shall stop my comments there and take questions.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Do you intend to do any media interviews after the Committee meeting?

Dr D Morrow:
No, I do not. I must say that, although such things can happen, it is absolutely not my intention. I have not scheduled any media interviews.

Mr Shannon:
Thank you for your presentation, Duncan. You have attended the Committee before, although it was a rushed job on that occasion. Today, there is a bit more time. The Committee hopes that you will find our questions helpful as well.

You mentioned that any new stadium should be backed by the supporters of all three sports; ultimately, the matter comes down to support. How would you feel if a poll were carried out, and 97% of the supporters of one of the three sports indicated that they would not attend events in the new stadium? Do you believe that their opinion should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to locate the stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh? Perhaps that is a pointed question. However, I want to hear your opinion on that matter. Your answer need not be based on politics but rather on the sport alone.

Dr D Morrow:
A supporters’ poll is important. I expect that supporters are crucial in the considerations of any of the sports governing bodies. They are an important factor.

I suspect that, for example, if one asked the supporters of any football club, they will have a long history of attachment to their ground. Without taking the particular sport into consideration, people tend to be conservative about the matter anyway. They have not only a physical attachment to a location but emotional attachments because of experiences and memories. The matter is highly emotional. At the same time, it is clear that business cases must be made in order to determine where the future lies.

Supporters are critical in the governing bodies’ considerations, and they must be involved. I assume that they have been involved. However, the opinions of supporters cannot always be decisive. Sports in the modern world have two audiences: their existing support base and that into which they want to extend. I anticipate that, particularly for those sports, the big change in audience will be gender-based and will extend to families. The extension in support for those sports will happen among women and families.

Supporters — especially organised supporters — are critical. No team wants to proceed without its supporters. It is for the governing bodies to resolve the specific needs of their supporters vis-à-vis all the other considerations that they must make.

Mr Shannon:
Therefore, it would be unwise for any governing body to ignore its support base. As I mentioned, 97% of the supporters of one sport who were asked whether they would attend events at a stadium at the Maze said that they would not. You have said that any governing body would be unwise not to take account of their supporters’ opinions when they make any decisions.

Dr D Morrow:
I want to nuance that in order to make it clearer: ultimately, the decision must be that of the sporting body. It is up to the body to decide how relevant that is vis-à-vis the other factors that it must consider. Certainly, it needs to take supporters’ views into account. I cannot imagine that it would not do so.

Returning to the issue of sharing, a location must be found at which the supporters of various sporting bodies feel safe and comfortable. That is a critical issue, and the transformation of a greenfield site is one of the options for achieving that. Any other sites that come forward must be considered on their own terms.

Mr K Robinson:
Duncan , thank you for taking the time and trouble to attend. I am sorry that you got such short shrift the last time that you attended the Committee. On that day, the Minister was due to attend, and we were under time constraints. I appreciate the fact that you have come back.

You gave a good analysis of several points. The issue of emotional attachment is sometimes forgotten when bricks and mortar are discussed. Arsenal Football Club, for example, was attached to its stadium at Highbury, yet it has moved successfully to a new stadium. The location of that new stadium was crucial, as was the infrastructure and what would be brought to the area.

I am not yet convinced that the Maze offers anything more than the other potential sites. I am trying to tease out how the situation has arisen at which a body of opinion seems to be pushing us towards the Maze and the Maze alone. One of the sports has reservations but, before this Committee was even set up, something appears to have pushed the focus down the line towards the Maze that is almost preventing consideration of other locations. During a previous Committee meeting about the stadium, we teased that out with the designers, who ignored the five-lane highway, the railway and ferry connections and the proximity of an airport — all of which are available at the north foreshore.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Will the member ask a question?

Mr K Robinson:
I am coming to a question.

Mr D Bradley:
I thought that Pat Ramsey was not here. [Laughter.]

Mr K Robinson:
Duncan , you talked about shared space. In your opinion, is there any overriding issue to say that the north of Belfast, where much of the Troubles were centred and where communities are trying to reach out to each other across the peace walls, could not be as equally iconic an area as a greenfield site that is set well back from any infrastructure?

Dr D Morrow:
You raised many points, so I hope that I can do justice to your question.

The Community Relations Council is keen to promote shared space anywhere, and north Belfast is of particular interest. The Crumlin Road/ Girdwood site is one area in which we are interested, and we are also working with Crusaders Football Club and Newington YC Football Club to consider whether there is a possibility of those clubs developing a smaller sports stadium, which would be useful.

Mr K Robinson:
You had better stop, or I will have to declare an interest.

Dr D Morrow:
I have attended interesting presentations from the management and boards of those clubs, and I am keen on the proposal.

The issue becomes complex if the Maze is considered by itself, because there is no doubt that it is a highly contested space. The notion of transforming it into something that is genuinely useful and valued by everyone is a remarkable idea with a value of its own.

You asked whether anywhere else should be considered. People have mentioned many thinkable sites, including the Titanic Quarter and the north foreshore. However, as far as I know, there has not been a sustained movement from the governing bodies to show that such sites are available and that there is a business case for them. If those moves were to come forward, that would be excellent. I am concerned that a feasible alternative has not been identified in Belfast. That raises questions about whether those kinds of sites are available in Belfast.

The iconic nature of a shared stadium that is safe for all, is used by all and is the pivot of a new international image and of the entertainment business is thinkable anywhere. Thus far, I have not seen a coherent plan. From the Community Relations Council’s point of view, the reason that the focus is on the Maze is because we do not want to lose the value of the possibility there if, indeed, it is the right one. My assumption is that there has been a robust process. However, that is where I must leave it because the site is outside the Community Relations Council’s area.

Mr K Robinson:
It is interesting that Duncan has stopped there, because that is what the Committee is challenging. The targeting social need (TSN) weighting in that business case was 5%, but there was a major input at an earlier part of the presentation suggesting that the Maze would be close to TSN areas in west Belfast when, in fact, they were about 10 miles away. The north Belfast situation, meanwhile, was in the middle of TSN areas, some of them extreme.

Dr D Morrow:
I am keen to establish whether a shared site that is viable exists, with which the sporting bodies are happy and with which everyone can identify. If such a site exists, that is an urgent matter because to lose such a site would be unfortunate.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Gentlemen, I need your help with timings. We are not going to rush Duncan again.

Mr D Bradley:
Croke Park in Dublin could be said to have historical associations and to be an iconic symbol of the past. Since its redevelopment, it has become a shared space. Rugby and soccer are now being played there, and, two weeks ago, Princess Anne was present at a rugby international. Such visits and events would have been unimaginable a number of years ago. The physical development of the ground lent itself to that change, and there was also a philosophical change. The Long Kesh site is a historical icon in Northern Ireland, and perhaps a development on that site could lead to the type of modern icon of which you speak. On a more cynical note, Duncan, although those governing bodies and their sports might be sharing the ground, some people would view that as simply their playing their own games at the ground at different times and ask whether that is really sharing. Furthermore, will that type of sharing change the underlying attitudes about sport, co-operation and sharing that all of us would like to see?

Lord Browne:
That was the point that I was going to make: a shared space with three different governing sports bodies does not necessarily mean cross-fertilisation among supporters. Would you be totally opposed to proposals for the refurbishment of the three grounds in Belfast being included in the business plan? Would that have a role to play?

Dr D Morrow:
Three issues were critical for Croke Park. First, it is a hugely useful resource that has become useful to other people. Secondly, in the past few years, the development has been a huge cultural iconic shift, and it has not been shared in the sense about which we are talking — the sports have been played separately. It is not a question of bringing the sports together: rugby, Gaelic games and soccer have very different audiences. It strikes me that 80,000 people paying to watch Brazil is better than 10,000 people paying to watch Bulgaria.

Therefore, one has to examine the economics of the numbers. In European soccer, there is no doubt whatsoever that the clubs that are winning are those that can consistently attract massive crowds. The question of size is, therefore, an economic question that I cannot answer. However, it is an important question in relation to the issue under discussion today.

The question is not about playing mixed codes; it is about playing codes that people already play separately. The symbolism of a shared venue, shared management and shared ownership is undoubtedly significant and is different in Northern Ireland — against the backdrop of its history and with separate sports continuing to play — than it would be elsewhere.

The word “opposed” is not one that should be used. The symbolism of a new stadium situated in an enormously contested space and under a clear understanding of management would show the world that Northern Ireland is a different place. We are wrestling with the idea of sport as a culture war — perhaps “war” is too strong a word and conflict or division are more appropriate — and a shared stadium offers a symbolic and iconic opportunity to make a statement to the contrary. We need to consider how all sports can grow in the future and begin to approach markets that they have not done previously.

The value of Croke Park, the Millennium Stadium and other stadiums is not solely limited to sport. Those venues are used for a variety of activities. Although I am unsure of the exact economics, it strikes me that it is more economically wise to have a business park with seats than an empty sports stadium that is used only occasionally. Northern Ireland will also be a more marketable place than in the past if we establish a stadium of which people can be proud and where people from all sides of the community can come together.

Mr Brolly:
I want to address Jim’s point about supporters. The supporters of all three codes are not enthusiastic about moving out of their traditional sporting venues. GAA followers are certainly not jumping up and down at the prospect of watching matches at Long Kesh.

Mr Shannon:
Is it as high as 97% of supporters?

Mr Brolly:
It is probably higher. In general, GAA supporters will question whether it is necessary. They are happy to go to Casement Park for local games, Clones —

The Deputy Chairperson:
In that case, does the member think that they would allow the other two sports to share it between themselves?

Mr Brolly:
No; the GAA has made a commitment to play games at the new stadium, but it will be interesting to see how many supporters attend. Some will go for the novelty, and — I know this is Duncan’s dream — perhaps people will eventually decide it is acceptable for separate sports and good for the community —

The Deputy Chairperson:
The member is sitting in Pat Ramsey’s chair, so can we have a question? [Laughter.]

Mr Brolly:
The bodies that control the three sports will decide on whether there will be an agreement on a shared stadium. Conducting a poll among supporters, as Jim suggested, would not contribute to that decision. It is the Assembly’s duty to lead the community on this vital issue.

Mr Shannon:
Windsor Park will do me.

Mr Brolly:
Does Duncan agree that more people may begin to follow all three sports? For example, although rugby already has a wide following, GAA supporters are much more likely to support the Northern Ireland football team playing in the new stadium than at Windsor Park because of difficulties with its location.

The Deputy Chairperson:
It took four and a half minutes to get to that. [Laughter.]

Dr D Morrow:
I hope that a crossover will develop in the future, and people will have a growing interest in different sports. There are exercise reasons for that, and the obstacles in front of people playing particular sports must be put into the past.

As far as I am concerned, there are four core questions to be asked. Is the Maze the only available location, or are there viable alternatives? At this stage, I am not aware of any other location that has been put forward, and that is a fact that must be considered.

Will the new stadium be a success, and will visiting the stadium be a comfortable and enjoyable experience? Central to those questions is the design of the stadium, so you were right to mention design.

Will the new stadium be a real asset to Northern Ireland, and how useful will it be? Will it be restricted to hosting sporting events, or can other value be added to the project?

The final crucial issue is management. There must be a consistent approach to everything that is included in the site. The site should no longer be a highly contested political space but a place that belongs to everybody. The incorporation of any conflict transformation centre must be managed on those principles. It is essential that everybody can visit that centre, that it is coherent and that it reflects the variety of views held in Northern Ireland, while also being forward-looking.

Whether it is the Maze, or another setting, that is chosen as the site for a multi-sports stadium, attention must be paid to the social and economic aspects that will enhance its usefulness for the entire community.

The Deputy Chairperson:
There are two particular questions that concern us: who set the ultimate criteria that the governing bodies of the three sports — GAA, soccer and rugby — must agree on a single site? Who decided that each body had a right to a veto? We cannot get our head around those questions, Duncan, so perhaps you can help us.

Dr D Morrow:
I cannot answer the first question; I have no idea who said that.

The Deputy Chairperson:
You participated in the whole Maze charade. You are a key player; the Community Relations Council is a key player. You know more than we do.

Dr D Morrow:
I wish that were true.

The Deputy Chairperson:
The papers suggest that you know more than we do.

Dr D Morrow:
For the record, my participation — through the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which is the council’s sponsoring body — originally regarded the issue of the conflict transformation centres rather than the stadium. Subsequently, I was consulted on various points by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Neither I nor the council set those criteria; we were not asked to do that. It was proposed to us that only a three-sports-stadium was viable. However, I do not know who set those criteria.

I turn to your second point about each sporting body having the right to a veto. If those three bodies are keen for the project to go ahead, the Community Relations Council views that as hugely advantageous. It would be an iconic venture, so the question about vetoes becomes irrelevant. If one of the sporting bodies walked away from the project, that would be a different matter.

The Deputy Chairperson:
That is fair; I accept that. However, I asked those questions in response to your earlier statement that you had not examined in detail, from a community relations perspective, the alternatives to the Maze. You may argue that you were not asked to do that, but I find it strange that you did not offer to do it. The Committee has received the business case, and it contains absolutely no community relations perspective on the other options. The entire presentation is based on the Maze site.

Dr D Morrow:
I will be clear on this.

The Deputy Chairperson:
The sum of £229,450 was spent on a business plan, and a further £55,000 was spent on an outline business case. However, the Community Relations Council has not given a view on any option other than the Maze. That seems strange.

Dr D Morrow:
I am slightly mystified, so it will make more sense if I set out the order of those discussions. Initially, the Community Relations Council stated that it did not have a preferred site; it was in favour of any location that could buy in the three sporting bodies. Let us be very clear: the council has not been campaigning for the Maze; it has been campaigning for a shared stadium. Indeed, “campaigning” is the wrong word; the council has supported a shared stadium.

The next thing is —

The Deputy Chairperson:
From what we read, you are probably more correct to say “campaigning”, to be honest. Perhaps that was a slip of the tongue on your part.

Dr D Morrow:
That is not true; the council has not been campaigning for the Maze site. It believes that a shared stadium would be an iconic institution and should be —

The Deputy Chairperson:
You have not given an opinion on any of the other locations for a shared stadium.

Dr D Morrow:
The Government put forward a robust case that established the Maze site. Let me be clear: if another proposal is put forward that has the same vision and capacity and is viable, the Community Relations Council is perfectly happy to support it.

The Deputy Chairperson:
I will not press you any further on that, but it seems strange that the Community Relations Council did not offer an opinion on the other options. It may be prudent of you to revisit that. My final question — and this is one that will help the Committee immensely, from a community relations perspective — is: do you believe that Windsor Park is unable to facilitate an event that would attract spectators from both communities?

Dr D Morrow:
As it stands, Windsor Park is located in an area that is changing. Over time, that might become a place that is neutral. However, the issue is whether it can cater for the three sports and whether it has the same economic viability. Those are not questions —

The Deputy Chairperson:
I did not ask you that. As far as Windsor Park is concerned, is it your opinion that it can facilitate an event that would attract spectators from both communities?

Dr D Morrow:
I will start from the beginning, so that I avoid saying anything that I do not want to say. Currently, Windsor Park is associated with football and a certain type of atmosphere. The Community Relations Council has worked very hard to try to create a totally different atmosphere there. The Irish Football Association has also worked very hard to try to achieve that. The location of Windsor Park is problematic because of limited space. However, if all three sports were willing to buy into a Windsor Park proposal, it would not be a problem to create more space at that site. However, a proposal of that type has not been made at this stage.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Thank you very much, Duncan. I appreciate the time that you have taken to be with us today. This session is being reported by Hansard, and you will be given the opportunity to verify what you have said.

Dr D Morrow:
Thank you very much.

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