By David Young, PA
Northern Ireland cannot currently support a joint UK and Ireland bid to host the 2028 European Championships, a Stormont minister has said.
DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said the lack of a properly functioning powersharing Executive and agreed budget means the region cannot provide the “in principle” support to the bid that has been offered by England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Lyons’s own party collapsed the Executive last month by withdrawing First Minister Paul Givan from the administration in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The move automatically removed Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill from her post as deputy First Minister.
Other ministers remain in position in shadow format ahead of May’s Assembly election but the wider Executive cannot meet or take significant decisions that cut across the responsibility of multiple departments, such as agreeing a new three-year budget.
There remains significant uncertainty whether a new Executive will be formed on the other side of the election.
In a letter to remaining Executive ministers, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Lyons acknowledges the political situation in Northern Ireland means support cannot be offered to the tournament bid.
Northern Ireland could potentially host seven matches if it was involved in a successful bid for the Euros.
“The cross-cutting nature of Northern Ireland participation in the Euros and the lack of both a decision-making mechanism and agreed budget means NI cannot provide ‘in principle support’ for the bid at this stage,” Mr Lyons wrote.
The minister said his officials will continue to observe work on the bid, with the potential of a future Executive agreeing to formally support the endeavour at a later stage.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane blamed the DUP for risking the region’s participation in the bid.
“I’m astounded to hear Minister Lyons openly state that his party’s refusal to get back into the Executive is costing us jobs and investment and holding us back from hosting this prestigious football tournament,” he said.
In his letter, Mr Lyons cited stadium capacity in the region as another obstacle to Northern Ireland’s participation.
The National Stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast has a capacity of 18,500 – significantly short of the 30,000 minimum required for hosting games at the Euros.
Matches could potentially be staged at the GAA’s nearby Casement Park, but it currently lies derelict. A plan to redevelop the venue into a 34,500-capacity stadium has been beset by delay and controversy and is currently subject to the latest in a series of legal challenges brought by local residents in west Belfast.
Mr Lyons said there is also a lack of clarity around the funding for the project.
He said while Northern Ireland would need to invest around £75 million (€90 million), the majority of which would be spent from 2027 onwards, there would be a potential economic benefit of such an investment.
“The main obstacles to Northern Ireland’s participation in the Euros remain the lack of stadium capacity and clarity on and provision for the substantial costs,” he wrote.
“Work is ongoing to finalise the cost/benefit assessment but at this stage the figures paint a positive position across the partners.
“For Northern Ireland, it is currently estimated that an investment of around £101.6 million (€121.8 million) will yield a return of around £217 million (€260.2 million).
“At present the costs accruing to Northern Ireland would be in the region of £74.5 million (€89.3 million), the majority of which would fall due from 2027 onwards.
“The cost/benefit assumptions at present are based on hosting a 32-team Uefa Euros in the UK and Ireland and an indicative proposal for Northern Ireland to host seven tournament matches.
“The Euros 2028 have the potential to bring many economic and social benefits to Northern Ireland, and I believe that there is much value in continued participation in the five nations’ work to secure the Euros 2028.
“I am content that officials continue to observe the work and engage in a way which would allow a future Executive to consider the viability of participating in Euros 2028.
“This is on the understanding across the partners that Northern Ireland is unable to commit to supporting an expression of interest or a bid at this stage and can withdraw from the work at any time.
“Expressions of interest are not legally binding and can be withdrawn at any stage and in the event NI are unable to take a decision, allocated matches would be moved to another jurisdiction.
“Officials will continue to engage in an observing role during the pre-election period and an incoming Executive committee will need to make a formal decision after the election.
“If that doesn’t happen then Executive ministers remain in office and can give their views on our continued participation at that point.”
Mr Finucane said there is a need for a “positive can-do attitude”.
He added: “All parties need to be back in the Executive working together to ensure we play our part to realise this incredible opportunity.
“The DUP should get back into the Executive and work with the rest of us to deliver it.
“The new Casement Park would be a first-class venue to host a number of games throughout the tournament. We need to see this work started urgently.
“Football fans here deserve a prestige tournament such as the Euros, and our economy and our businesses would benefit greatly from the hosting of Euro 2028 fixtures.
“In a new Executive after this election, Sinn Féin will be fully in support of this exciting bid.”