Northern Ireland’s Giant headache
by Paul Gosling
According to myth, the Giant’s Causeway on Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast was built by Irish titan Finn McCool so that his Scottish rival Benandonner could cross for them to do battle. Given the role of Scots settlers in forming Ulster’s unionism – which still takes the leading role in Northern Ireland’s politics, despite the rise of Irish nationalism – the Causeway of hexagonal stones has a symbolism that resonates through history.
So while it is bizarre, it is perhaps also appropriate that the Giant’s Causeway, of all things, has created the biggest challenge for the cross-party Northern Ireland Executive re-established last May. Against the odds, that Executive has otherwise run pretty smoothly, characterised by the apparently ever smiling faces of First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Yet the parochial and domestic question of who should own and run the Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre has created a real crisis for the Executive. And it is precisely the ‘domestic’ nature of the problem that lies at its roots.
The first stir was caused last September, when environment minister Arlene Foster unexpectedly announced that she was “of a mind” to approve a planning application from a private sector developer to produce a new visitors’ centre for the Giant’s Causeway. Enterprise minister Nigel Dodds responded that in the light of this he would withdraw funding for the scheme that his department had promised to Moyle District Council and the National Trust. Moyle council owns the site of the temporary visitors’ centre and its permanent predecessor, which burnt down eight years ago, while the National Trust owns the causeway and headland.
Dodds’ decision was despite his department leading the implementation project for the public sector scheme and running an international design competition for a new centre, which had been won by architects Heneghan Peng. And Foster’s decision, it emerged this month, was against the advice of her own planning officials, who concluded that the private sector proposal was inappropriate for the site.
There were immediate misgivings about the private development – and outright hostility from the National Trust – but it was only when the identity and details of the developer became public that this became an outcry. Foster and Dodds are members of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. But, they assure us, they were unaware that the private sector developer, Seymour Sweeney, is also a member of the DUP.
One person who did know Sweeney’s party affiliation is Ian Paisley Jnr, himself a minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. In fact, Paisley Jnr, it emerged, had bought a house from Sweeney and knew him well. Paisley Jnr also admits that in private meetings with British government ministers, prior to the restitution of the Executive, he lobbied about what should happen at the Giant’s Causeway.
As these details dripped out into the public domain – some because of Freedom of Information Act requests – opposition to the Sweeney proposal grew. Almost inevitably, Foster announced last month that her department will not, after all, support Sweeney’s scheme. The proposal from Moyle District Council and the National Trust is now firmly back on the agenda and almost certain to be approved.
While details of the joint project have yet to be finalised, it will be built on the site in the ownership of Moyle council and will be, in the opinion of the National Trust, much more in-keeping with the setting. Sweeney owns the land immediately above the causeway and a development there, believes the National Trust, would have been oppressive.
Foster had indicated that her provisional support for the Sweeney project was partly motivated by the slow progress made by the Moyle council and the National Trust. This perspective is rejected by the National Trust, which points out that its scheme had previously been a joint project in which the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) were also partners, creating complications. Specifically, the National Trust blames DETI for only providing it with the papers in December of last year that will enable it to submit a planning application based on the winning design.
Following the difficult experience of recent months, Mourne District Council and the National Trust have decided on a revised structure, in which only the two of them will be involved. Mourne retains ownership of the visitors’ centre site, which it will lease to National Trust in return for a rental income. Negotiations are still underway on what that fee will be, which, says Mourne, will be no less than it currently earns from its use of the site. The council is not prepared to disclose what that currently is, for fear of damaging its negotiating position.
But the new visitors centre still remains about three years off. Planning approval will probably take a year; it will then take six months to tender for construction; and the building work will last another 18 months. The issue of what visitors will use in the interim has not yet been decided: the permanent new facility is likely to stand where the temporary building is currently situated.
And there is, in any case, uncertainty over the planning process. The application is only at the beginning of its journey, but it is not yet submitted. Patsy McGlone, chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s environment committee – which is examining the background to the Causeway farce – told us he expected a planning application to be formally submitted in March, the council suggests April or May, while the National Trust is talking of late spring.
There is also the matter of obtaining £21m of funds. Although DETI still holds about £19m of funds allocated but not spent on the project, Mourne council expects only half of this to be made available now. The National Trust intends to invest substantially in the development and it will seek additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Union’s Interreg. The nature of these outside funding sources mean that the scheme can only have limited private sector involvement – probably restricted to the centre’s construction.
Sweeney is the leading developer in the area of the Giant’s Causeway and has other local commercial interests. He had argued that local spending by the 600,000 visitors a year was much less than at comparable World Heritage Sites elsewhere. (The National Trust reacts that its focus is on conservation, not income generation.) Sweeney failed to respond to our request for a comment on whether he intends to pursue his proposal further. His party colleague and ward councillor for the Causeway, George Hartin, was similarly reticent, responding “I have nothing to say,” when asked which scheme he now supported.
David McAllister, another DUP councillor for the Causeway ward, says he wanted the council and National Trust project to now go ahead quickly, as did Andrew Price McConaghy, an independent councillor for the ward. The visitors’ centre should be “in public ownership for the benefit of the area,” says Councillor McConaghy. He adds that he believes that Moyle council should accept some of the blame for the slow progress towards there being a new visitors’ centre. “Our council has changed its mind too often,” he says.
Faced with the challenge of building a new centre, Moyle decided in the months after the fire to sell the sight, possibly to a private developer, before deciding to pursue a joint development with the National Trust.
Now, though, the council is committed to the public sector scheme. Councillor Madeline Black, chairperson of the council, is “delighted” with Foster’s about-turn. “We are in no doubt that this is the right decision for the benefit of, not only the local tourist industry, but the overall tourism offer in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a whole,” she says. “It has always been our firm belief that the Causeway and the visitors facilities at the Causeway must remain in public ownership. This has been our main guiding principle throughout the process and remains so.”
Kevin McGarry, head of tourism and leisure at Mourne council, explains: “We had been working closely with DETI for three years – but then we had to review our position. An awful lot of time, money and effort had gone into that. The council has taken one key decision, which is that this facility would remain in public ownership.”
Patsy McGlone, a Social Democratic and Labour Party Assembly member, puts much of the blame at the doors of the environment minister and her planning officials, though for very different reasons. “Now that I have seen the planning file I can say that approval for the scheme would have been nowhere near existing planning policy,” says McGlone. But he admits that the failure of planning officials to deal with applications quickly is an underlying problem that needs to be address and was a factor in Foster’s frustration.
In Northern Ireland, district councils – which have very few powers and responsibilities – are only consulted on planning decisions, with approval being down to the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service. The process of consideration is typically very slow. “The Planning Service is a major issue,” says McClone. “It is holding up economic and housing development.” However, he opposes transferring planning responsibility to councils because of fears that they would take a sectarian approach to decisions, just as, in the distant past, they did to housing allocation. It was that failure that led to the civil rights marches, which, in turn, led to the Troubles.
And so the Giant’s Causeway leads us back full circle. In one way or another, symbolically and in reality, Northern Ireland simply cannot escape from its past.