Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

I'll build it for free

Odyssey developer's pledge on Causeway centre

One of Northern Ireland's leading businessmen today offered to build a Giant's Causeway visitor centre and hand it over to the public free of charge.

Peter Curistan, who helped create Belfast's showpiece Odyssey centre, dramatically stepped into the row over whether proposed new visitor facilities at the Causeway should be in private sector hands.

He said his development company Sheridan could put together a package that would deliver a centre at the north coast attraction at no cost to taxpayers.

"I would like to see a visitor centre at the Causeway owned by the National Trust on behalf of the public," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"We could build a multi-million pound development, including both a quality development of our own and a visitor centre at no cost to the taxpayer. The centre could be gifted to the Trust.

"We have the resources and the track record as Ireland's number one tourism and leisure development company."

Mr Curistan said the package could include some adjacent residential or hotel development to help finance a visitor centre.

The Sheridan Group provided the private sector input into the Odyssey, Belfast's landmark Millennium building.

He also stated that his company had made "substantial profits" from the recent sale of the Odyssey Pavilion, which includes bars and restaurants.

"We received a lot of money from the Odyssey and are prepared to be magnanimous and support our number one tourist attraction," he added.

A fierce row is raging over proposals from north Antrim developer Seymour Sweeney for a new Causeway visitor centre.

DUP Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, this week said she was "minded" to grant Mr Sweeney's private sector project planning approval.

Her party colleague, Enterprise Minister Nigel Dodds, responded by scrapping a long- standing scheme for a publicly- funded centre.

The National Trust, which owns the famous Causeway stones, voiced dismay and underlined its opposition to the Sweeney plans.

The DUP faced criticism after it emerged that Mr Sweeney was a DUP member. Mrs Foster emphasised that she had been unaware of the developer's party affiliation and had never met him.

The Minister also threatened to sue anyone who impugned her integrity.

Mr Sweeney also confirmed that he had sold a north Antrim property in 2004 to the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr, who has been a long-term supporter of his Causeway plans and is now a junior Stormont minister.

Mr Sweeney has stressed that the property, at Ballyallaght Farm Cottages near Bushmills, was sold at full market value.

The Belfast Telegraph learned last night that Mr Paisley Jnr's father-in-law and mother-in-law also own a house at the Ballyallaght development.

Mr Sweeney has made clear that it too was sold at full value.

The north coast businessman has complained about being used as a " political football" in the ongoing Causeway row.

The intervention of Peter Curistan's Sheridan Group into the debate has the potential to create awkwardness for the DUP.

The company is taking a judicial review against a decision by the Department for Social Development to axe it as preferred developer for a major riverside development site in Belfast.

The case may involve documents linked to a controversial attack on Mr Curistan by DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson in early 2006.

The MP questioned the riverside development plan and accused the businessman under parliamentary privilege of being linked to "IRA dirty money" . This claim has been vehemently denied by Mr Curistan, who has challenged him to repeat it outside the Commons.

It was stated at a preliminary hearing in the judicial review that the Sheridan Group is seeking discovery of correspondence between Mr Robinson and the Northern Ireland Office in the wake of the DUP deputy's Commons statement last year.

The judicial review is due to be heard at the High Court next month.

The Sheridan Group was founded in 1989 and has been involved in a string of hotel, restaurant, residential and cinema developments. It has also drawn up Ormeau Park sports stadium plans.

But its Causeway centre idea may fall foul of the National Trust and other environmental groups due to the private development element within it.

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