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Northern Ireland's giant battle

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Controversy has dogged plans for beauty spot the Giant's Causeway, making it one of the cross-party Northern Ireland Executive's biggest challenges.

According to myth, the Giant's Causeway on Northern Ireland's Antrim coast was built by the Irish titan Finn McCool so that his Scottish rival Benandonner could cross for them to do battle. Given the role of Scottish settlers in forming UlsterÍs unionism, the causeway of hexagonal stones has a symbolism that resonates through history.

So perhaps it is 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.

The question of who should own and run the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre has created a real crisis for the executive. Indeed, Northern Ireland Executive minister Ian Paisley Jnr recently resigned, in part due to questions about his personal and political links with the planned developer for the centre, Seymour Sweeney, and allegations that he had lobbied on his behalf.

The allegations surrounding Mr Paisley Jr have also led to increased pressure on his father, Ian Sr, who will step down from his post as Northern Ireland first minister in May.

The first stir was caused last September, when environment minister Arlene Foster 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 by saying he would withdraw funding for a competing public-backed scheme that his department had promised to Moyle DC and the National Trust. Moyle owns the site of the temporary visitors' centre and its permanent predecessor, which burned down eight years ago, while the National Trust owns the causeway and headland.

Mr 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 Ms Foster's decision, it emerged, was against the advice of her own planning officials, who concluded that the private sector proposal was inappropriate.

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. Ms Foster and Mr Dodds are members of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But, they assure us, they were unaware that the private sector developer, Mr Sweeney, is also a member of the DUP.

One person who did know Mr Sweeney's party affiliation is Ian Paisley Jnr, himself a minister in the Office of the First Minister & Deputy First Minister. In fact, Mr Paisley Jnr, it emerged, had bought a house from Mr Sweeney and knew him well. Mr 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, Ms Foster announced last month that her department will not, after all, support SweeneyÍs scheme. The proposal from Moyle DC 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 DC and will be, in the opinion of the National Trust, much more in keeping with the setting. Mr Sweeney owns the land immediately above the causeway and a development there, believes the National Trust, would have been oppressive.

Ms Foster had indicated that her provisional support for the Sweeney project was partly motivated by the slow progress made by Moyle 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 & 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 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 the 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. 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 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 saga, says he expected a planning application to be formally submitted in March. Mourne suggests April or May, while the National Trust talks 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 expects only half of this to be made available.

The National Trust intends to invest in the development and it will seek additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European UnionÍs Interreg programme. 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.

Mr 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.

Mr Sweeney has appealed against Ms Foster's decision to refuse his application. His party colleague and ward councillor for the Causeway, George Hartin, was also 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 go ahead quickly, as did Andrew Price Mc-Conaghy, an independent councillor for the ward. The visitors' centre should be "in public ownership for the benefit of the area," says Cllr McConaghy. He adds that he believes that Moyle DC 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 site 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, chair of the council, is "delighted" with Ms 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 visitors facilities must remain in public ownership."

Kevin McGarry, head of tourism and leisure at Mourne, explains: "We had been working closely with DETI for three years, but then we had to review our position. A lot of time, money and effort had gone into that."

Mr McGlone, a Social Democratic and Labour Party Assembly member, lays much of the blame at the doors of the environment minister and planning officials, though for different reasons. "Now that I have seen the planning file I can say that approval would have been nowhere near existing planning policy," says Mr McGlone. But he admits that the failure of planning officials to deal with applications quickly is an underlying problem and was a factor together with environment minister Ms Foster's frustration.

In Northern Ireland, district councils have few powers and responsibilities and are only consulted on planning decisions. Approval is given by the Department of the Environment's Planning Service and the process is typically slow. "The Planning Service is a major issue," says Mr McClone. "It is holding up economic and housing development."

But, 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, it appears that Northern Ireland simply cannot escape from its past.

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