Politicians see elections in May, not European football in 2028

Harder side of unionism doesn’t appear to think ‘would this not be good for Belfast?’

Given this week's weapons grade rhetoric around Belfast, you could conclude that some people care little about the joint bids of the football association of Ireland (FAI), England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to host the 2028 European Championships.

In a bid to chum the water for the harder side of unionism, a decision to halt a scheme to upgrade football stadia while continuing the redevelopment of the GAA’s Casement Park in Belfast has been branded “sectarian” by a DUP MLA.

Former economy minister Paul Frew accused Sinn Fein's communities minister Deirdre Hargey and finance minister Conor Murphy of making "sectarian decisions," claiming they were treating one project differently to the other.

Frew could have used unfair, confusing, unusual, biased, improper, unjust if he felt that way. But he didn’t. He used sectarian.


The capacity of the ground would mean matches in any successful Euro 2028 bid could be played in Belfast

It probably comes as news to the GAA that their members and their grounds cater for only one side of the community and that because the development of the GAA ground in Andersonstown was apparently going to go ahead, while other football grounds were not, it can now be baked into the sectarian cake.

It may also come as news to Frew that both football and GAA have carried out years of work on cross community projects and initiatives. Both are stridently non-sectarian and preach non-sectarianism as does the third of the three big sports, rugby.

You can agree or disagree with the way the funding breaks down or if it is too much or too little or even appropriate and that is par for the course in political discourse.

But Frew knows exactly what he is doing by describing the decision on Casement Park along those lines. He is simultaneously turning up the temperature and driving wedges into communities that often need little help in doing it themselves.


In the process he is dragging football and the GAA into a place they don’t belong, a place they don’t ever wish to be. Crass bargain basement politicking, it is hugely destructive and damaging. It is also part of the brutal language that has been ‘normalised’ in the current climate of dispute over the protocol.

On the Nolan radio show on Wednesday the DUP's Jim Wells repeated a head wrecker phrase he had used before. 'every word of Irish spoken is a bullet in the struggle,' he said of a language close to people in both football and GAA.

That was in a debate on the possibility of Queen's University having an Irish speaking area on the campus. Also this week, a straight-faced Jim Allister of the TUV spoke of "EU colonialism in Northern Ireland."

Trigger words all of them to certain people from politicians in election mode and unafraid to take down whatever needs to be taken down as long as they get the numbers on polling day.

All of it ignores a recent report in this paper saying the football association of Ireland had formally announced a joint bid with England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to host the 2028 European Championships.

The Irish government is expected to financially support the Euro bid, along with a range of infrastructural improvements. In fact Jonathan Hill, the FAI chief executive, confirmed the GAA had been approached for the use of Croke Park. A redeveloped Casement Park in Belfast could also be part of the football bid.

Last July Tom Daly, chairperson of the Casement Park stadium development project board, said that the project will undergo a two-year build with major construction set to commence in the first half of 2022.

Ulster GAA explained before first minister Paul Givan resigned, that the project was a commitment within the NI executive's new decade new approach agreement and is the last remaining element of the department for the communities regional stadia program, which has "seen the completion of the Irish FA and Ulster rugby's stadia."

For the city

The new stadium, which will include a bowl design with a capacity of 34,578 has been developed by the designers of Tottenham Hotspur, Emirates and the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

The capacity of the ground would mean matches in any successful Euro 2028 bid could be played in Belfast if a suitably sized ground was complete. The historical Windsor Park is too small to hold the minimum capacity of 30,000 required by Uefa.

Frew and his colleagues don’t appear to think in terms of ‘would this not be good for the city, a Euros.’ They see elections in May, not European football in 2028. But they may be interested in an online meeting next Wednesday, February 23rd.

Hosted by Thomas Kane, the BBC NI sports presenter, Ulster GAA will be joining Irish FA and Ulster rugby in delivering a good relations conference as a closing event for their sports uniting communities project.

The collaboration between the three bodies hopes to reach 17,000 people of differing backgrounds, particularly across the political divide, with the aim of changing perceptions and building sustained relationships.

One of the most memorable days in GAA history was in 2007, when the England rugby team came to play in the Six Nations Championship in Croke Park and God save the queen was played for the first time. Around 80,000 people in the ground stood silently and respectfully.

The GAA could have reached to a troubled past and spoke a sectarian language of fear and division. Instead they chose courage.