Wells 'surprised' at GAA's plans for Army base as he urges wider usage
A South Down unionist MLA has voiced his surprise that the GAA is to open a new centre of excellence at Ballykinler Army Barracks.
It emerged on Friday that a major training centre is to be built on part of the sprawling MoD site in Co Down
Parts of the complex are still in regular use by the police and Army for training, but it will close completely next year.
The Down county board of GAA announced on its Facebook page that its committee had approved advanced negotiations to base the new centre of excellence at Ballykinler.
The move will see the organisation lease part of the facility from the MoD.
Ballykinler has been owned by the MoD since 1901.
The last resident battalion pulled out of the camp in 2014, leading to speculation over future uses of the site.
Down GAA said early discussions with the MoD had focused on the "potential lease and development of part of the Abercorn Barracks site at Ballykinler into a multi-purpose GAA complex" and that "all parties are working towards bringing this exciting plan to fruition".
In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph, the MoD said: "We can confirm that the MoD is in discussion with the Co Down GAA in relation to a proposed centre of excellence in the Ballykinler area."
But Mr Wells expressed surprise at the move.
"The relationship between the security forces and the GAA has been an uneasy one in the past and many will be surprised that Ballykinler has been selected for this facility," he said.
He called for broader plans for the future of Ballykinler. "More significant long-term investment is required for this strategic site," he said.
"Down GAA have announced that they are seeking to lease part of the site to build the centre. I assume that this will be similar to the facility recently built near Dungiven in Co Londonderry.
"The number of new jobs which will be created by this proposal will be small, and I will be seeking assurances that its construction will not preclude the much larger investment the site needs.
"The removal of a permanent Army battalion from Ballykinler led to the loss or transfer of 200 jobs from Down district.
"The vacant site is an ideal location for major investment to provide sustainable long-term employment for this rural area.
"I have always maintained that Ballykinler was an ideal site for a new police college following the shelving of the Cookstown proposal.
"Many of the facilities on the site were modernised just before its closure was announced, and could be readily adapted for the needs of the PSNI.
"This, or a similar proposal, would bring huge economic benefit to Down district."
Ballykinler has had a varied history, from hosting the training of the 36th Ulster Division during the First World War to being an internment camp during the Irish War of Independence in 1919, to housing troops from the United States during the Second World War.
In 1974 a 300lb IRA van bomb killed two soldiers and destroyed some buildings.
The facility was used as a training centre for the UDR during the 1970s and 1980s, and has been used by various Army regiments as a base since then.