WEST Belfast MLA Pat Sheehan believes that the momentum is now behind the redevelopment of Casement Park in Andersonstown and that the stadium is on track to be completed on schedule for Euro 2028.
The Sinn Féin man, who played minor football for Antrim and even spent two years being taught below the stands at Casement when St Gall’s Primary School was being redeveloped in the late 1960s, said attention has now turned to the overall cost of the project that will transform the Andersonstown area.
With work beginning last week to clear the site in preparation for building works, and with the Irish government pledging €50m for the redevelopment, all eyes turned to UEFA's visit to the West Belfast venue this week, as pressure mounts on the British government to bring some clarity to their own financial contributions and costing.
"Basically, we’re waiting on a definite cost," said Pat. "What’s it going to cost to complete this project and can it be completed in time? I think it can be completed on time if the necessary funding is put in place. 
“Now, I don’t know what the figure is, but [Secretary of State Chris] Heaton-Harris said last year that whatever money was needed would be found. 
“What I think should happen is the British government, the Irish government, the Executive, the GAA and the IFA – because they have skin in the game too in terms of the Euros coming in 2028 – should all get into a room and work out how the funding is going to be delivered, because remember this is the last of a three-pronged project after the Maze-Long Kesh project fell apart, probably as a result of the DUP not wanting it. It was then decided that there would be stadiums for rugby, soccer and GAA. 
“Rugby and soccer have got their stadiums now and this is the last one to be delivered, and the funding needs to be put in place. 
“I’m confident that there will be a contractor appointed before the end of this year and that gives two-and-a-half years at least to do the project and I think that’s time enough. 
“It heartening to see that work has started and UEFA are coming – I presume to get an update on where everything stands and also to have a look about Casement. There’s a lot of momentum now and hopefully that momentum will carry on.”

Pat was co-opted by Sinn Féin in 2010 as an MLA for West Belfast to replace Gerry Adams after he had announced his own intention to seek a Dáil seat for Louth. He has since been elected four times for West Belfast in the Assembly. With the Assembly back after the two-year DUP boycott over the Irish Sea border he says there is an attempt by all the parties “to show the new assembly and executive off in a positive light”. However, he concedes that there are “some difficulties around funding”. 
“There’s absolutely no doubt about that,” he said. “But the British government has conceded in the talks prior to the setting up of the executive and the assembly that the North has been underfunded for a number of years. Now we’ve had to deal with Tory austerity for 12 to 13 years now, it’s created severe difficulties across all the departments. I suppose the ones with the most focus on is Health and Education, so while everybody’s positive there are many challenges ahead but there are also plenty of opportunities and we should get to make the most of those in the time ahead.
“The problem is that all the revenue raising projects that have been flagged up by the media are all ones that would disproportionately hit the most disadvantage in society and given that what I have already said, that we have been through 12 to 13 years of Tory austerity and more recently a cost of living crisis with the exponential rise in the cost of oil, gas and electricity and so on, people are really feeling the pinch so to add big increases to rates or water charges or issues like that, in my view aren’t on the cards. 
“There are some other areas that can be explored and I’m sure the executive will be looking at all of those but if they are going to be revenue raising they are going to  have to be fair right across society and those who can afford the most should carry the biggest burden and that’s the philosophy of Sinn Féin in general.”
In the new Assembly Pat is Deputy Chair of the Education Committee and also sits on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee – the committee which is tasked with the potential reform of the institutions. He said that while Sinn Féin are up for discussions around reform “we need to be cautious”.

“The difficulty in terms of reform is that the architects of the Good Friday Agreement have cautioned against pulling at threads of the Agreement, because if you pull at one thread it could unravel the whole Agreement. There are so many moving parts that if you move one part then it has an unintended consequence further down the road.
“When the Good Friday Agreement came about the Petition of Concern was absolutely necessary so that one community couldn’t dominate the other in the way that had happened here for 50 years during the Stormont regime, so there were important checks and balances built into the institutions. Now, are we at a stage where we no longer need the Petition of Concern? The answer to that is I don’t know, but those are discussions that will take place in the committee of which I’m part and we’re happy to discuss all of those issues.
“So, we’re up for reform but we need to be cautious as we move ahead that we don’t do anything that could upset the delicate balance that exist within the institutions.”

The former hunger-striker has been prominent in the pro-Palestinian protests that have been taking part throughout the country since October. It’s a cause that’s been close to Pat for several decades.
“I’ve been travelling back and forth to Palestine now for 16 or 17 years, even before I was an MLA I headed up our Middle East desk for the party, so I’ve had a long association with Palestinians and our relationship in Sinn Féin goes back to the 1970s and our relationship with the PLO. It’s not as if we’ve recently come to this issue,” he said.
“I was in Gaza after one of the bombardments in 2012, myself and Jennifer McCann, stood on the rubble of a house that had been struck by an Israeli missile that killed 13 members of three generations of the one family in Gaza City, and I thought it was absolutely horrendous to have so many people in the one family wiped off the face of the Earth in one fell swoop. But in this onslaught we’ve seen it time and time again – whole families being completely wiped out, and I don’t know what's going to happen.
“Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people, ethnic cleansing. It’s all of those things that the Palestinians are saying it is – and it’s happening in full view of the world. We are seeing the dead babies and children, women weeping over the dead bodies of their children. It’s just absolutely horrendous.”
Pat criticised the actions of Western governments since October for providing weapons to the Israelis, “cheerleading” the Israelis and refusing to call for ceasefires.

“You’re always looking for a silver lining and I suppose one of the things that has come out of this is a raising of awareness of the need for an independent Palestinian state. At some stage this conflict is going to end and when it does end there then needs to be a serious discussion about an independent state for the Palestinian people.”
Sinn Féin have been criticised in some quarters for going ahead with plans to attend events in Washington around the St Patrick’s Day celebrations. He acknowledges that people have genuine concerns.
“It’s my view that without American involvement we wouldn’t have had a Good Friday Agreement and it is my view that without America we wouldn’t have had a Protocol, because the Americans kept the Brits’ feet to the fire around the whole Brexit issue and the Good Friday Agreement and protecting the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “Whatever we think about the difficulties of the Good Friday Agreement here, the Americans see it as one of their biggest foreign policy successes in the last 50 years. 
“The Palestinians aren’t going to be in Washington. In fact it’s unlikely that they are going to be in Washington any time soon, so why can’t we go and be a voice for Palestine and confront the administration? I know there have been meetings over the last number of days and I think Michelle [O’Neill] has met Tony Blinken [US Secretary of State] and she’s also met the American Ambassador to Britain and on each occasion she has raised the issue of what is happening in Palestine with both of those representatives of the US government and that will continue. 
“And whoever we are meeting in the States, whether it’s Biden, whether it’s the State Department or other arms of the US administration, we will be raising the issue of Palestine and we will be asking them, why don’t you play a positive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the same way you did here? That was your big success, use it as a template.
“We speak to many Palestinians and many Palestinian NGOs and so on, and of all the political organisations we speak to, none of them have asked us to pull out of this trip to Washington. I know there are people who are genuinely concerned about it, who think that we shouldn’t go. But we think we can have more impact going to Washington and raising the Palestinian issue.”