After all, Galway city to Belfast is 370 kilometres. GMIT stayed in the Carrickdale Hotel, which is in County Louth, 50 miles from Belfast, the last saloon before the border.
It’s 20 years since the first IRA ceasefire of 1994 and southerners are still terrified to rest their heads in the fourth green field.
Sadly, this is nothing new. It’s yet another legacy of the Troubles. Forget about how Belfast is perceived from abroad. From the south, there are still plenty who see it as another Lebanon.
Fortunately, we Nordies are world experts in the pockmarked field of prejudice and bigotry. Riddled with it ourselves, we understand it takes years for old ideas to change. Perception is everything. For 30 years, Belfast was depicted as a war zone. Bullets, bombs and bloodshed. Those images don’t fade quickly.
It will take time for attitudes to change. But action must be taken as well. Things must happen.
Luckily, the GAA’s Ulster Council has a plan for Belfast. It’s just as well because the second biggest city in Ireland is not a GAA stronghold. There are two clubs in South Belfast, two in North Belfast and none in East Belfast. The epicentre of GAA activity is West Belfast, home to 15 clubs.
Perversely, the ceasefire has actually had a negative effect on the GAA clubs in West Belfast. During the Troubles, people socialised in their own areas. It was safer.
Clubs like St John’s, St Paul’s, Rossa, St Gall’s and Lamh Dhearg operated successful bars which generated a steady stream of income. But in the past 10 years, Belfast city centre has become an entertainment hotspot. Westies no longer stay inside their own precincts. Rossa’s has already closed. Most of the others only open one or two nights a week.
Beyond the problems affecting the GAA clubs, West Belfast remains a place apart. Other areas of the city are unrecognisable from 20 years ago. A summer’s night in the Cathedral Quarter could be in anywhere in Europe. But West Belfast looks and feels like it is largely untouched.
However, there is a major capital investment planned for the Andersonstown Road. The project will cost approximately £80m (€96m). When completed, it will generate millions for the local economy. It’s called Casement Park.
This should be a good news story. Yet, you could easily reach the conclusion that the GAA is trying to do a disservice to West Belfast.
Some residents cannot be appeased. And this week, the Antrim County Board and the Casement Social Club, will go to court — again.
The level of misinformation and scare-mongering has been scandalous. Some opposed to the stadium love to brand the project as a “white elephant”. This is laughable.
When Casement Park is opened, it will be debt-free. It is planned that each year the venue will host four major fixtures: two Ulster semi-finals, the Ulster final and an All-Ireland quarter-final. At a conservative estimate, those four games would generate £2.5m (€3m). For additional revenue, the stadium will also have a conference centre.
Rumours that the GAA will need to run concerts to make ends meet are just that. To be economically viable, Casement Park doesn’t need Garth Brooks. Thank God. The benefits for the local area should be obvious. A study at Sheffield Hallam University estimated that for every 10,000 people who attend a sporting event, £1m (€1.2m) is pumped into the local economy. At that rate, an Ulster final is worth £3m (€3.6m) to West Belfast.
With time, it can be assumed the area will equip itself to accommodate the demands of the supporters coming to the games.
Recently, a friend of mine walked into an Indian restaurant on the Ormeau Road. It was 6pm. The place was bunged with rugby supporters. There wasn’t a seat. They were heading to Ravenhill.
Ravenhill is also surrounded by residential properties. Compared to Casement Park, the Ulster Rugby Branch only received a smidgeon of resistance.
In West Belfast, the views of a few have been allowed to drown out the needs of the majority.
It’s time the local politicians started to look at the bigger picture. In Martin McGuinness and Carál Ní Chuilín, Sinn Féin’s leadership has provided strong support. But Sinn Féin’s five MLAs in West Belfast need to vocally back the project. Cowed when the residents picketed Connolly House, they have been conspicuously low key.
Paul Maskey has shown some leadership, but a stronger, more united voice is needed. The SDLP has not been supportive. Indeed, the Attwood brothers, Alex and Tim, have been critical. Tim Attwood formally objected during the planning process. SDLP leader, Alistair McDonnell, a former doctor with the Antrim hurling team, should intervene.
No doubt, the same politicians will be tramping over each other to get in the photograph when the stadium is opened. Because, let’s make no mistake. The stadium will be built. The design has been passed by the planners.
Of course, it’s easy to sympathise with the 180 houses on Owenvarragh Park and Mooreland Park. But the opposition and protests raised by the residents is disproportionate to the support they have from the wider community. West Belfast just can’t afford to lose a project like Casement Park.
In 2023, there is a possibility Ireland will host the Rugby World Cup. A game could be played in Casement Park, and a new image of West Belfast could be beamed across the globe.
Before 2023, we could have an All-Ireland quarter-final between Tyrone and Kerry. Rather than stay at the Carrickdale, Kerry supporters could book into the new Andersonstown Hotel. The night before the game, the pubs and clubs of the Falls would ring out with Kerry songs. And when the southern guests head back home, they will return with a new image and a new experience of West Belfast. This needs to happen. West Belfast needs Casement Park. But right now, Casement Park needs the support of West Belfast.