The Taoiseach has admitted that the 2016 pre-election sod turning on the stalled Cork event centre was a mistake.
Leo Varadkar’s frank admission comes as Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s self-imposed Easter target for progress on the deadlock over the venue’s complex State-funding package passed without progress.
Mr Varadkar has insisted that the 6,000-capacity €79m venue will be built. It has become mired in controversy, most recently over the €9m loan element of its €30m state-aid package.
“We are working on it,” said Mr Varadkar. “The Tánaiste is really leading on this, even though it’s not his brief. He’s taken a huge interest in it, being from Cork of course, and like me, he is embarrassed at the situation.”
The Taoiseach said he had discussed the matter with arts and culture minister Josepha Madigan in an attempt to kickstart progress on the project.
Mr Varadkar’s predecessor as Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, turned the sod on the project on Cork’s South Main St in February 2016, just weeks before the general election. Critics dismissed it as a political stunt.
The Tánaiste has repeatedly defended the sod turning, insisting it was a public statement by the key stakeholders of their commitment to the project.
However, more than three years on, building work has yet to start, the venue has undergone a complete redesign and been enlarged, costs have soared from €50m to €79m, the funding hasn’t been agreed, and planning has yet to be secured.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Varadkar said that one of his strict rules now is not to turn the sod on anything unless he knows all contracts are signed and there are no problems.
When asked if it was a mistake to turn the sod on this project in 2016, he said: “I think on reflection it probably was. I haven’t talked to Enda on that. I’m sure he is as embarrassed of those photos, as we all are.
“And of course other projects that were happening at that time are now complete, like Páirc Uí Chaoimh, for example.
“It’s very frustrating that a project like the event centre hasn’t got off the ground. I think it will be a real addition to the city for lots of reasons that I don’t need to explain.
“It’s not just a matter of money. And you’re right in the context of the Dunkettle interchange or Páirc Uí Chaoimh or the M20, €9m is a relatively small amount of money. The problem is the possibility that it may have to be retendered.
Asked if he is confident the outstanding issues can be resolved, Mr Varadkar said: “This is going to be built.”
Earlier this month, Mr Coveney set a new political timeline of seeing progress on the funding issues by Easter. His spokesman said meetings are ongoing.
It is understood the most recent meetings have involved the attorney general and Martin Fraser, the secretary general to the Government and the Department of the Taoiseach.
“I know people are frustrated at how long the event centre project is taking. But it is being progressed and we are happy with the direction of travel,” said the spokesman.
Labour local election candidate Peter Horgan, who has been pursuing the event centre issue for several months, said any council decisions on the funding arrangements should be deferred until a new council is elected.
“We are now in the endgame of this council term,” said Mr Horgan. “No vote should be taken to approve any loan action that will impact services by the council.
“It must be an issue for the newly expanded city council members after May 24. A fully costed impact study on such a loan must be provided.
“The people of Cork must know what’s happening. It’s their money at the end of the day.”
Developers BAM have been given until July to respond to planners’ requests for additional information about the design of the enlarged venue.