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Last Updated: Monday, 24 May, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
NI stadium 'needs support'
A major sports stadium for Northern Ireland may be viable if an agreed site can be found and is fully supported by football, rugby and the GAA, the sports minister has said.

Angela Smith was speaking on Monday as she revealed the results of a feasibility study she had ordered into the project.

In January, the Strategic Investment Board was asked by the sports minister to establish whether a stadium for Northern Ireland was commercially viable

Ms Smith said that she had requested a further study from the consultants, who had helped rescue the troubled Wembley Stadium project.

She warned that it was still too soon to commit the government to building a stadium, which would cost about 55m.

Sports Minister Angela Smith
Sports Minister Angela Smith commissioned a feasibility study
One possible model for Northern Ireland's stadium is the Reebok, Bolton Wanderers' ground, with its futuristic stands incorporating a hotel, corporate boxes and exhibition space.

However, it is one which must pay for itself and not be a drain on public money.

It is a world away from grounds like Windsor Park where the Northern Ireland football team currently plays.

Ms Smith said: "If any one of the sports said that they weren't going to play a part, the economics really become very difficult," she said.

"If one pulls out, it could put a drain on the public purse, and I'm very anxious to avoid that."

Tony Whitehead of the Strategic Investment Board says a stadium was unlikely to be built with purely private sector funding.

"Most stadia are built with some sort of public sector capital contribution. Clearly we are looking to try to limit that in this situation," he said.

Tony Whitehead
Tony Whitehead is the man carrying out the feasibility study
The government envisages the Northern Ireland football team moving to any new stadium, along with the Ulster rugby team.

They have also been speaking to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which is attractive because of its large support and also because it would help ensure cross-community support.

The possibility of major concerts being staged at a new stadium has also been discussed with music promoters.

BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Gareth Gordon says the former Maze Prison in County Antrim is favourite - but many more hurdles remain before the project gets the go-ahead.

He said the GAA's position appears to be crucial to the project. It has been asked to commit to four games a season, but the association has not yet issued a response.

Cross-community

Former rugby international Trevor Ringland, who is now chairman of the One Small Step campaign, said it was important to have the GAA involved.

"GAA is regarded as mainly a nationalist sport, but 10 years from now, that could change dramatically," he said.

"We have to start thinking about where we want to end up 10 or 20 years from now - there's no doubt that GAA will be getting support from the whole community, judging by the way they have been moving in the last 10 years.

"It's quite evident that they have been making the changes that were necessary, and other people have been receptive towards this."

Sinn Fein's Spokesman on Culture, Arts and Leisure, Francie Brolly, dismissed the proposal as a "white elephant".

He said any money going towards it would be better spent on providing sports facilities for local communities.




WATCH AND LISTEN
BBC NI political correspondent Gareth Gordon
"The GAA has been asked to commit to four games a season"



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