Work on a £100 million golf resort near the famous Giant's Causeway on Northern Ireland north coast is due to get under way later this year after a landmark ruling at the Northern Ireland High Court yesterday.
Mr Justice Weatherup dismissed a legal challenge by the National Trust which claimed the development would have a major environmental impact on the UNESCO designated World Heritage site.
More than a decade after the initial planning application was lodged, the judge endorsed a decision last year by the Northern Ireland Environment minister Alex Attwood to give the go-ahead for a championship course and five star hotel outside the village of Bushmills, Co Antrim, a mile and a half from the Causeway, one of the country's main tourist attractions.
The ruling was a personal triumph for the US-based Northern Ireland businessman Dr Alistair Hanna who is heading up the investment and advisory group involved in the Bushmills Dunes golf resort and spa scheme, and which he claims could create up to 360 direct jobs and an estimated 300 more through suppliers and construction.
The Trust launched a fierce campaign of resistance because of the close proximity of the proposed 18-hole championship course, luxury hotel and holiday accommodation to the Causeway and sought a judicial review of the minister's decision to approve the application - one of the most significant since the power-sharing executive was established in Belfast.
Dr Hanna was not in court for the judgment, but afterwards declared work would begin as soon as possible. It is likely to begin towards the end of the summer and take at least two years, maybe three, to complete.
He said: "Not only will the resort provide a world class golf links course and facilities attracting thousands of visitors each year, it will also protect the vulnerable topography of the coastal area which has been left vulnerable following decades of neglect."
The Trust, which once applied for planning permission to extend an hotel overlooking the Causeway, had previously said it was not opposed to golf or development, but repeated time and time again, it was trying to protect the Unesco designation as a World Heritage site.
It also claimed the development fell within the four kilometre zone which Unesco has placed around the stones.
But in a judgment which lasted an hour and 45 minutes, Mr Justice Weatherup rejected all their objections which ranged from protection of the Causeway which was afforded under international law to the impact on wildlife, - including bats and lizards - as well as the economy and tourist accommodation.
The National Trust was bitterly disappointed by the ruling and said it remained convinced a massive development in the setting of the World Heritage Site was wrong.
A statement added: "We still believe that if a development of this scale does go ahead in this location, the message is that nowhere in Northern Ireland, no matter how important or protected, is safe from development.
"The ruling today has served to highlight aspects of very serious concern for those partners involved in the care and protection of the World Heritage Site.
"It is essential that we work together to get planning policy right in Northern Ireland to ensure that appropriate development can happen, but not at the expense of our beautiful landscapes and historic places."
"There are also significant issues regarding the relationship between government in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and UNESCO that must be addressed to ensure the protection of our World Heritage Site for the long term."
Dr Hanna, who is on a skiing holiday in the United States, believes the resort is critical to the future of the Northern Ireland tourism industry, especially on the North Coast which already has the world rated Royal Portrush golf links, close to the home of former Open champion Darren Clarke, who has been a big supporter of the project.
He believes the resort will be a huge attraction for the thousands of golfers who visit the area every year, especially the Americans every September and October.
Within seconds of Mr Justice Weatherup's judgment being delivered, one of his closest advisors texted him the result of the ruling.
Under the Environment Department's planning policy, the judge said only exceptional circumstances could permit development which affected World Heritage sites.
The argument centred on whether Unesco sites had universal value so exceptional that they transcended national boundaries, of importance for present and future generations, the judge said.
But he warned that did not create individual rights and the Department was not obliged to consult the UN organisation's guidelines.
The judge pointed out international treaties which had not been integrated into domestic law could not be relied upon in domestic courts, adding courts must step away from seeking to implement such obligations.
He added: "If the states do not adopt the treaties into domestic law they are not capable of affording rights to citizens.
"I think that is what arises in relation to this particular case. There are very limited circumstances in which the court is entitled to begin to interpret the impact of international cases."
He added: "I must not grant to the citizens a right that only exists in international law, if it exists at all.
"I am not satisfied on this argument about the Unesco point and find that the Department or the National Trust cannot rely on any supposed breach of the obligations under the guidelines."
He went on to dismiss a range of other objections:
- Environmental issues. The Trust had argued the development could have an impact upon wildlife including lizards, bats, newts and birds. It also said there could be drainage issues.
- Economics. The Trust claimed the department failed to make sufficient inquiry into the development's economic impact and that the minister was misled by his officers.
- Tourism. The Trust claimed tourist accommodation could be affected by the development.
- Precedent. The Trust said the Department had acted rashly.
- Reasons to grant permission. The Trust claimed the Department had failed to outline reasons for its decision but the judge said it had explained its thinking in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the media.
He said: "I am not satisfied on any of the applicant's grounds for a judicial review and accordingly...I propose to dismiss the application. There are a multitude of reasons why the National Trust is warranted in bringing this application and I am minded not to make orders in costs."
Friends of the Earth said it was bitterly disappointed.
Northern Ireland director James Orr added: "It is now clear that nowhere in Northern Ireland is special or safe. This judgment confirms that the Northern Ireland planning and environmental regulatory systems fail our priceless heritage and the people of Northern Ireland.
"The High Court made clear that it did not have any grounds under Northern Ireland or UK law to intervene against the Department on this matter.
"The ruling today also shows that UK law is unable to protect our precious World Heritage Sites. What can we expect to see next - a casino at Westminster Abbey or a funfair in Stonehenge?"
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said he was pleased.
"This is good news for the planning system, who got this right. It is good news for tourism in that we will be able to hopefully develop further infrastructure.
"It is good news for demonstrating that we can in very difficult circumstances reconcile economic need with environmental requirements and most of all at the World Heritage sites and around that area of the Giant's Causeway, I look at this very positively.
"It is good for planning, good for tourism, good for jobs but it is also good for heritage."
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr said justice had been done. “The judge has made the correct and rightful decision,” he said.