The European Commission has concluded that Northern Irish plans to grant £110 million (around € 133 million) for the reconstruction of three sports stadiums in Belfast is consistent with EU State aid rules. The Commission found that the proposed funding contributes to urban regeneration and social cohesion, in line with EU objectives, without unduly distorting competition in the Single Market.
The Commission's Vice President in charge of competition policy, Joaquín Almunia, said that: "The reconstruction of the three stadiums will contribute to the regeneration of disadvantaged urban communities in Belfast. It will furthermore promote social cohesion across religious divides and encourage communities to come together through the most popular sports of the region.''
In 2013 the UK authorities notified plans to rebuild three old sports stadiums in Belfast with a view to providing modern, state-of-the-art venues for the three main sports of the region, namely football, gaelic games and rugby. The aid will be granted through the regional budget of the Northern Ireland Executive. The total amount of the public funding is £110 million, shared between three beneficiaries: the Irish Football Association for the soccer Windsor Park Stadium (£31 million / €37.4 million), the Ulster Council Gaelic Athletic Association for the gaelic games Casement Park Stadium (£62.5 million / €75.4 million) and the Ulster Branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union for the rugby Ravenhill Stadium (£16.5 million / €19.9 million). Any surplus money will be invested in grassroot and community projects by the aid beneficiaries.
The Commission assessed the measure under Article 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which allows state aid to facilitate the development of certain economic activities or areas. The Commission found that reconstruction of all three venues met public interest policy objectives as they will be accessible to the general public (e.g. to schools, community sport, programmes for people with disabilities, programmes tackling poverty etc.). Moreover, the aid is well-targeted as it addresses a specific problem of under-investment in local sports infrastructure. Finally, the Commission concluded that the professional activities at the sports venues are of a local character and the aid therefore will not affect trade in the Single Market to an extent contrary to the common interest.
These three stadium projects are part of an overarching programme to promote urban regeneration, neighbourhood renewal, social cohesion, inclusion and equality in Belfast, particularly in light of the recent peace process. The funding is intended to underpin and support the peace dividend. The three sports involved, football, gaelic games and rugby, cut across political, social and religious divides and are the principal sports played and supported in Northern Ireland.
The project is also intended to raise participation levels in sport and physical recreation generally in Northern Ireland, to improve the health of the population and to increase Northern Ireland’s sporting profile through better playing and training facilities.
Moreover, the plan will improve local infrastructure development and upgrade the three stadiums tomodern health and safety requirements, which will also improve disabled access to the venues. This will create modern and fit-for-purpose disabled facilities to provide truly inclusive sporting locations, which can be used by all regardless of abilities.
The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.37342 in theState Aid Register on the competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of state aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the State Aid Weekly e-News.
Antoine Colombani (+32 2 297 45 13, Twitter: @ECspokesAntoine )
Yizhou Ren (+32 2 299 48 89)