Senior figures in the DUP are on a collision course over the long-delayed campaign to open a John Lewis store in Northern Ireland.
An ongoing row over where the development should be sited — which has been rumbling on for years — has sparked the internal tensions.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson has requested an urgent meeting with the party’s Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland ahead of a public inquiry, due to get under way next spring.
The Lagan Valley MP has battled to attract the major retailer to the Sprucefield site outside Lisburn, potentially creating more than 1,000 new jobs in an investment of £100m.
But he believes his party colleague’s decision to engage lawyers to help prepare his department for the inquiry could tip the balance in favour of the store going to Belfast instead.
Mr McCausland said his department had been asked by the Planning Appeals Commission to attend the public inquiry to answer questions about the regeneration of Belfast.
Mr Donaldson said: “I am very disappointed that DSD have been drawn into this issue by the Planning Appeals Commission.
“On matters such as this, I do not believe it is appropriate for a Government department to be seen in any way to take sides.
“If we were to lose the John Lewis project, with the potential it has to create over 1,000 jobs and provide in the region of £100m of investment in our hard- pressed economy, serious questions would have to be asked about the mixed messages being sent out from Northern Ireland.
“I am seeking an urgent meeting with the Social Development Minister to discuss the role the Belfast regeneration section of his department has in the public inquiry.
“It is vital the DSD clarifies their position on this issue.”
But he denied the tensions could be put down to a political face-off between Belfast and Lisburn. “I would not see it in those terms... it is a regional issue.”
A DSD statement said: “Any questions about the department’s neutral stance on a private investor’s preferred location for their business is not of DSD’s making as we promote regeneration opportunity sites across the province.”
Story so far
John Lewis has been attempting to open its first store in Northern Ireland at Sprucefield near Lisburn for several years, but has become ensnared in long-running planning rows. A public inquiry into the plans — opposed by Lisburn traders who fear it will damage city centre business — is due to restart early in 2013. It was adjourned in June 2010.