It was a day of firsts at the Giant’s Causeway — not only was it Martin McGuinness’s first time at Northern Ireland’s only world heritage site, but it was the first time he and Peter Robinson shook hands in public.
The leaders were two of a number of dignitaries who visited the site to open the £18.5m Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre — unveiled 12 years after the original centre burned down.
Constructed in 18 months using the ground around it, the building comprises 186 hexagonal columns made from volcanic basalt quarried in nearby Kilrea, from the same lava flows which formed the Giant’s Causeway.
A carpet of grasses and wildflowers, cultivated in a field beside the centre, stretches across the roof, while 4.5km of underground pipes heat the centre using geothermal energy.
The building’s interactive area chronicles a few of the characters who have visited the world-famous Unesco site.
These include Susanna Drury, who is said to have created the first known paintings of the Causeway’s 40,000 columns in the 1740s, to Minnie The Minx’s Beano comic adventures on the Causeway.
A two-minute animation played repeatedly on a screen on a back wall tells the story of the legendary giants Finn McCool and Benandonner.
“This is the area where ancient quarrels (are) put to rest,” First Minister Peter Robinson said.
“This is now among the attractions which help to transform this region into a world-class tourist attraction.”
However, a more recent source of contention is gathering nearby.
The new visitors’ centre looks out onto the proposed site of the Bushmills Dunes Resort.
The National Trust has launched a legal challenge to a decision to approve the resort after the Department of the Environment approved a planning application for the 18-hole golf course and hotel at Runkerry, near the Giant's Causeway. Yesterday Mr Robinson said: “If you are going to advance the visitors’ centre for Northern Ireland as a whole, then the whole tourist product has to be upgraded.”
He said environmental and heritage concerns had been looked at in relation to the proposed resort at Runkerry.
“These are matters we will deal with, perhaps, more on another day,” he said.
Meanwhile, Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness said the new visitors’ centre completed a “stunning package”. “We have a stunning package which people like the Lonely Planet guide have proclaimed to the world as a must-see destination,” he said, before being whisked off to be photographed perched on the Causeway’s hexagonal columns with Mr Robinson.
The centre will open officially in the autumn.
Among the names who could cut the ribbon are the Prince of Wales, who is the National Trust’s patron. Staff members have also suggested Oscar-nominated local actor Liam Neeson.
In 1986, Unesco declared the Giant's Causeway to be a World Heritage Site. In 2007 Northern Ireland's then Environment Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP announced she was minded to let property developer Seymour Sweeney’s company Seaport Investments Ltd build the centre.
However, that decision was reversed months later.
In January 2009 Mrs Foster's ministerial successor Sammy Wilson gave approval to the National Trust's plan for new facilities.
The first visitors’ to the centre yesterday said it was worth waiting for.
“It looks well,” Tony Watterson (83) from Portstewart said.
“I think it has everything. It was well worth the wait.”
Former flag boy John McKay (95) visited the site during its construction phase regularly.
A stand in the centre tells the story of Mr McKay, who worked 12-hour days as a 15-year-old for 2d an hour on the Causeway tram.
“It’s very elaborate,” the pensioner said as he toured the building.
Shih-Fu Peng is part of Heneghan Peng Architects, the company which designed the visitors’ centre, as well as visitor attractions beside Egypt’s pyramids.
He said this project was a “one-off” for him.
“This was a big one (project). It’s like a $10bn diamond which is a millimetre only in diameter,” he said.
“It is a bit of a one-off (because) you rarely get a confluence of people who band together to achieve something like that. It is beyond money.”
... but what do our architectural experts think of the new creation?
Alan Jones is president of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA)
I think it’s very appropriate. It’s made from the ground of the area.
In that way it could not be more appropriate.
I’m looking forward to seeing the centre in the different kinds of light.
For local, national and international visitors it’s an appropriate gateway to such a significant site.
Mark Priestley is an architect with Hughes McMichael Ltd architects in Belfast
I think it (Giant’s Causeway visitors’ centre) does match the surroundings of the area from what I have seen of it.
The amount of natural light coming in is effective.
I think that it helps the building.
I am looking forward to seeing the whole building.
I think it will appeal to most people.
Taina Rikala is senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Ulster
I think what they have been able to do is create a very beautiful, quiet and noble quality to match the scenic beauty of the site. The architects have worked very closely with the National Trust and I think it will meet people’s expectations.
You go to the Giant’s Causeway and the building is a place to relax and walk around. It’s not competing with the site.