New NI secretary says Casement Park 'will be built'

The newly appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland has told BBC News NI that Casement Park “will be built” but urged people to “bear with” him.

Speaking in Belfast on Sunday, Hilary Benn would not be pressured into saying the new Belfast stadium will be built in time for the Euros in 2028 but said “as soon as I’m in a position to make that decision, I will”.

Mr Benn, who became NI secretary on Friday following the UK general election, described Casement as "a very important programme".

However, he said there were "two issues: first is cost and there’s a certain amount of money in the pot but it’s not enough”.

“The second issue is we’re into extra time in trying to get it built in time for the Euros," he added. "But Casement Park will be built and as soon as I’m in a position to make that decision, I will. You have to bear with me”.

Earlier on Sunday, Mr Benn met traders at St George's market on his first public outing as NI secretary of state.

He told the waiting media it was a “great privilege and honour to be appointed as secretary of state for Northern Ireland”.

On Saturday Mr Benn met some of Northern Ireland's political leaders at Hillsborough Castle.

He met First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly, as well as representatives from parties including the UUP and the SDLP.

On Sunday he said he was “greatly encouraged” by those discussions, adding that he wanted to build “new relationship with the parties of Northern Ireland”.

Mr Benn took over the NI secretary of state role on Friday after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer became prime minister.

He said his priority was to establish a new relationship between the UK Government and the Stormont Executive.

'We will work hard'

His meetings at Hillsborough Castle took place after he attended the new Labour government's first cabinet meeting in London on Saturday.

In a statement, Mr Benn said he said he wanted to get to work as "quickly as possible" and was pleased to have held initial discussions with local politicians.

“My immediate priorities are to establish a new relationship between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as we work together to foster economic growth and prosperity, and to improve public services," he said.

Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn shakes hands with a market trader during a visit to St George's Market in Belfast
Mr Benn in St George's Market, where he spoke to traders and members of the public [PA Media]

On the controversial topic of legacy, Mr Benn said he wanted to ensure that there was "a system in place for addressing the legacy of the past" which "wins support from victims’ families and that all communities can have confidence in, and which is compliant with human rights”'

He said the new government was committed to the Good Friday Agreement and to "the principle of consent that is at its heart".

In a statement following Saturday's meeting, Sinn Féin said its vice-president Michelle O'Neill had told Mr Benn there was an urgent need for fairer funding and investment in public services.

Ms O'Neill was joined at Hillsborough Castle by a Sinn Féin delegation including Economy Minister Conor Murphy and newly returned Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Pat Cullen.

“We strongly made the case for fair funding to be provided urgently for health, education and public services here," Ms O'Neill said.

She said they had also reiterated the need for immediate funding to be released to build Casement Park in time for Euro 2028 and had called on the secretary of state to "follow through on previous commitments" to scrap the Troubles Legacy Act.

Describing the secretary of state as "significantly engaged on all the issues," Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Gavin Robinson said the meeting was "a very detailed and useful hour-long meeting".

The SDLP was represented by party leader Colum Eastwood MP and Claire Hanna MP.

Mr Eastwood said they had a "constructive meeting" with Mr Benn in which they urged him to make the delivery of "emergency aid to our health service" the most important priority of the government's first 100 days in office.

'Reform is needed urgently'

Speaking on Sunday about public sector budget pressures, Mr Benn said the Stormont Executive would need to look at its own spending and revenue raising.

Pointing out that public spending in Northern Ireland is higher than in England, he said: "There is a question for the Executive about how the money is spent."

"All public bodies, governments, institutions have to look at what they've got coming in, what's going out and how they can make the most effective use of that.

"Historically, government in Northern Ireland has not been as good as it might be in income generation."

In its dying days, the Conservative government reached an interim deal with the Stormont Executive on a new fiscal framework.

Mr Benn said funding discussions about the future would continue and that "there will be additional money when the main estimates are published".

"The really urgent task for now is public services," he said.

"[The Executive] have a big responsibility to undertake public service reform because with more funding per head than say my constituents receive, Northern Ireland has the worst waiting lists in the whole of the UK.

"We stand ready to give advice and expertise and support because it is a very big task but it is an urgent one for the people of Northern Ireland."

On Friday evening, Mr Benn spoke to the Tánaiste Micheál Martin by phone.

Addressing the relationship with Dublin, Mr Benn said: “As our nearest neighbour and co-guarantor of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, our relationship with Ireland is of great importance."

He said that “the new UK Government will work closely with the Irish Government to reset and strengthen the relationship" between them.