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Cave Hill protection group founder John Gray quits after article critical of Belfast zoo is 'censored'

Conservationist resigns as body refuses to publish piece questioning attraction's viability

By Linda Stewart

Published 02/06/2016

John Gray
John Gray

A founding member of a group launched to protect Belfast's Cave Hill has resigned from its committee over what he called "an act of censorship" preventing him from airing criticisms of the city's zoo.

John Gray said he stood down from the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign after it refused to publish an article on the zoo and its future in its magazine - a claim denied by the chair of the organisation.

In the piece Mr Gray, former Librarian at the Linen Hall Library, warned visitor numbers were falling and operating costs were rising, writing that it was time to think the "unthinkable" - closing the zoo and reviving the old Belfast pleasure garden concept.

His comments came after concillor Chris McGimpsey said the attraction was losing around £2m every year.

Mr Gray also asked whether the zoo's conservation efforts could be better undertaken in more favourable climates, freeing up the area for other pay-in attractions such as a craft village or adventure facility.

Mr Gray helped found the Save the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign and remained chair when it became the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign. But he resigned over the row, warning the body was in danger of becoming the "whatever you say, say nothing campaign".

He had previously proposed a resolution that was critical of the zoo, but it was withdrawn after it failed to achieve the necessary number of votes to pass. "Instead, it was agreed that I should write an article for the campaign's annual magazine, the Cave Hill Campaigner - this I duly did," Mr Gray said.

"The article did not call for the closure of the zoo or adopt a hardline animal rights perspective, but, largely using council statistics and consultants' reports, asked hard questions.

"At the April meeting of the committee of the Cave Hill Conservation Campaign, at which I was not present, it was decided not to publish my article.

"That decision was reaffirmed at the May committee meeting.

"The principal reason given was lack of balance and the need for an opposing article in support of the zoo.

"My article had not in fact opposed the zoo, but had asked hard questions about it.

"The committee had from January to May to source any counter-posing article.

"Even the zoo was approached in this respect, but was unable to deliver. The new edition of the Campaigner will, however, include an advertisement for the zoo.

"(The article) never could have been an expression of the policy of the campaign, given the differing views of committee members, but should have been a means of opening up debate.

"The Cave Hill Conservation Campaign has made no public response to the major issue affecting Cave Hill this year, and there appears to be no prospect it will do so. It is in danger of becoming the 'whatever you say, say nothing campaign'."

Cormac Hamill, chair of the campaign, said the committee discussed the zoo, but no consensus was reached.

"There were people like John who could see difficulties, and others who had a much more nuanced approach," he added.

Mr Hamill explained that the editor of the magazine had tried to source a balancing article, but had been unable to do so. "(No article) was forthcoming, so the editor took the decision that he wouldn't publish it," he said.

"We're not saying we would never publish, but we would publish it whenever there was something to balance it."

Mr Hamill said Mr Gray had been a very valuable member of the committee. He added if another article could be found, both would be published in the magazine's next edition.

The committee chair also welcomed this newspaper's decision to run the piece, since it would open up public debate on the viability of the zoo.

"It means we will not be in a situation where we are seen to be partisan, as the committee is not partisan as far as the zoo is concerned," he added.

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