Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Foster to say no to Sweeney proposal

Causeway decision expected today

Stormont Minister Arlene Foster is today expected to announce if businessman Seymour Sweeney is to get planning permission for a Giant's Causeway visitor centre development, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The Minister's officials were keeping her verdict a closely-guarded secret last night, amid growing speculation that she has shifted from her original position of being "minded" to grant approval.

Backbench DUP sources at Stormont were however predicting disappointment for Mr Sweeney, but no official confirmation was being issued.

The indications are that a verdict either way will be the subject of yet more intense controversy, and could be challenged in court through a judicial review case.

The Minister's decision is due to be revealed in a morning statement to the Assembly.

While it is not listed on today's official agenda at Stormont, it is likely to be made shortly after the proceedings begin at 10.30 am.

Mrs Foster sparked a row last September with an announcement that she was "of a mind" to approve Mr Sweeney's commercial centre blueprint.

Her DUP Ministerial colleague Nigel Dodds responded by shelving a Government visitor centre scheme, involving the National Trust and Moyle District Council.

The political row was fuelled by the revelation that Mr Sweeney was a DUP member and had been strongly backed by lobbying by DUP MLA Ian Paisley jnr over a number of years.

Mrs Foster stressed that she had been unaware of the businessman's party ties, and had not been lobbied by anyone on his application.

The Minister's initial "minded" position was based on a hope that a three-way agreement could be sealed, involving the National Trust and Moyle Council coming on board Mr Sweeney's development scheme.

But it soon became clear that there was no prospect of such a deal.

The Trust has made it clear that it believes Mr Sweeney's plans would breach Causeway centre guidelines drawn up by Unesco, the UN body responsible for the attraction's world heritage status.

The council and Trust have moved to take charge of the visitor centre scheme shelved by Mr Dodds' department.

At the centre of the debate is the need to find a suitable, permanent replacement for Causeway visitor facilities badly damaged by fire in 2000.

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