Sinn Fein minister expresses hope of ‘unlocking’ funding amid sporting controversy

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Deirdre Hargey said she would write to fellow ministers to try to ‘unlock’ funding for a football stadium upgrade project.

Sinn Fein’s Communities minister made the pledge amid ongoing controversy after announcing she was unable to push ahead with a £36.2m scheme to redevelop football stadiums local sub-regionals due to the lack of a functional executive.

In recent days, she has pushed back on accusations of bigotry, after the DUP sharply criticized the decision to halt the project while continuing the redevelopment of GAA’s Casement Park.

Ms Hargey told the BBC on Thursday that she would write to fellow ministers to see if funding could be released, despite the lack of a fully functioning Northern Ireland executive.

“The money is there, the money is on the table. We have to find a way to unlock that money without the executive,” she said.

Ms. Hargey said that while funding has been secured for the initiative, approval from the wider executive is required before it can move on to allocating funds for projects on specific lands.

Ms Hargey blamed the DUP for the situation, saying the party’s decision to remove Paul Givan from the role of Prime Minister meant the stadium program had to be put on hold until a functioning administration was back in place.

The DUP disputed this position and set it against the minister’s insistence that the redevelopment of GAA’s Casement Park in west Belfast can proceed despite the Stormont crisis.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Department of Communities said: ‘The Minister has made it clear that the 36.2m to regenerate stadiums is fenced off.

“The Minister is absolutely committed to providing this investment to support the clubs and build first class facilities.

“It is well known that options for the future of the sub-regional stadium program require executive approval.

“The collapse of the executive prevents the regeneration of local stadiums.

“The Minister is exploring all available options in the current situation.

“Today the Minister held a meeting with representatives of the IFA and NIFL and agreed to work together to take this project to the next stage.”

In a statement released following the meeting with the Football Association of Ireland and the Football League of Northern Ireland, Ms Hargey said she welcomed the opportunity to “reaffirm my commitment and my intention to implement this indispensable program”.

She said she had told both football bodies that she would work with them to “take this project to the next stage”.

Following the meeting, Football League of Northern Ireland boss Gerard Lawlor said: “We had an open and frank discussion and received assurances that the program will go ahead as planned, the recognition that an increase to 36 million is needed and sought, and the program remains a flagship project for the Executive.

“Communication is key to delivering this program in the future and I hope it will be delivered in a timely manner,” he said.

The DUP sought to portray Ms Hargey’s comments as a turnaround.

The party’s deputy leader accused Ms Hargey of trying to ‘play bigoted politics’ with the issue.

“The Minister had two years to provide the funding.

“Indeed, last September, she told us that it was in a few weeks,” said Paula Bradley.

“It is time for Minister Hargey to put aside her Sinn Fein political games and get on with her work and provide the funding.”

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