Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

DUP leader opposed publicly funded visitor centre in 2005

Paisley attack came more than two years before latest row on scheme

DUP leader Ian Paisley derided a Government plan for a Giant's Causeway centre two and a half years before his Ministers floored the scheme, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.

The North Antrim MP's statement in early 2005 also said the private sector should take the lead on a new Causeway visitor centre.

The First Minister's party was plunged into controversy last week when two of his Stormont Ministers handed a massive boost to proposals for a privately-developed Causeway centre.

The businessman behind this controversial scheme, Seymour Sweeney, is a DUP member.

DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster announced last week that she was minded to grant Mr Sweeney planning approval. She strongly denied having had any knowledge of his party affiliation and threatened to sue anyone who impugned her integrity.

Her party colleague, Enterprise Minister Nigel Dodds, meanwhile, halted his Department's plans for a publicly-funded centre.

Mr Dodds told the Assembly that the Government scheme, involving the Tourist Board, National Trust and Moyle Council, had been hit by "delay, delay and delay".

He also rejected suggestions that a planning application for a publicly-funded centre had been imminent, adding: "If only that were the case."

Mr Dodds' regret on the lack of progress may not be entirely shared at the top of his party.

For DUP leader Ian Paisley issued a strongly-worded press release in February 2005 dismissing the Government-led plans for a centre as "fool's gold" .

The statement came after Moyle Council had backed the public sector scheme, which was being developed under direct rule ministers.

The release was co-signed by his MLA son Ian Paisley Jnr and fellow DUP North Antrim Assemblyman Mervyn Storey.

Heavily critical of Moyle's decision, the joint press statement was entitled: "Only fool's gold at end of Causeway rainbow."

It said: "The need for a state of the art visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway couldn't be more compelling. However, we believe that the current strategy to achieve that goal is flawed.

"Government and its agencies in the Tourist Board are not best placed to deliver tourism facilities. In fact, there is much to prove the case that government run resorts usually end in closures because they are not expert driven.

"It is essential that any development of tourism facilities has with it the expertise of the private sector who know what they are doing and have experience marketing and running state of the art tourist facilities."

The statement also said: "We have grave reservations that what is being proposed will now fall well short of what is required to meet the current and projected future needs of Northern Ireland's premier tourist destination.

" The much promised rainbow over the Giant's Causeway will at this rate lead only to fools gold."

Mr Paisley Jnr has been an enthusiastic supporter of Mr Sweeney's private sector visitor centre plans for many years.

He also backed the developer's development of the Nook pub close to the Causeway and his successful legal challenge against the Northern Area Plan, a DoE development framework for the north coast.

Last week, when asked on Radio Ulster's Nolan show if he knew Mr Sweeney, Mr Paisley Jnr said: "He happens to be a constituent."

And when asked if he supported the developer, he replied: "I know of him, yes."

Mr Sweeney's membership of the DUP was confirmed shortly afterwards. The businessman stated that he had never given any financial donations to the party.

He also confirmed that he had sold Mr Paisley Jnr a house near Bushmills in 2004 and emphasised that this sale had been at full market value.

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