No Causeway for concern
Published 14/09/2007 | 08:14
Sinn Fein and the SDLP are raising the roof over Environment in Minister Arlene Foster's stated intention to approve DUP-member Seymour Sweeney's bid to develop a visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway. But they would, wouldn't they?
Seymour Sweeney, very much a local fellow, has built a fortune from nothing. He is now a very rich man. He has done it by turning the sleepy fishing village, in which he grew up, into a dormitory-by-the-sea for the newly affluent.
In the 1930s, Portballintrae was still a hamlet with its own self-sufficient community, largely of retired couples; but there was also an assortment of locals who drew a living - from the salmon and lobster fishing, the two comfortable hotels, from the land, painting and joinery, the golf links at Bushfoot, the Causeway tramway from Portrush and so on.
They were numerous enough to support Charlie Haughey's part-time pub (no relation) and three small groceries, one of which, McNeill's, had a sub-Post Office attached and would take orders for newspapers. The shops kept going because, in summer, the hotels were full and there was a lively letting business for local houses and bungalows. So the village came alive with holidaymaking families and business briefly boomed until September, by which time the visitors went home to put their children back to school.
The change in the annual cycle began in the 1960s, when a succession of wet summers coincided with the advent of jet flights to Spain and the new popularity of car ferries to France. The holidaymakers disappeared from Portballintrae. One of the groceries closed at once. Another followed, taking with it the sub-Post Office.
The owner of the third, the genial Mr McConaghy with the large moustache, must have sold vanilla ice cream cones and hooks and fishing lines to more future pillars of the chambers of commerce and more lawyers and medicos to be, from his establishment overlooking the little harbour, than anyone else in the land.
Soon after he died, it too closed. It was the last shop in the village. One of the hotels, the old Red House, also disappeared. Portballintrae is now a retail desert. In winter the blind eyes of its shuttered new apartment blocks, marshalled in serried ranks, line upon line, look bleakly over the bay and when the winter north-westerlies blow from Inishowen over the balustrades of Senator Leslie's old mansion on the headland, there are few souls about to feel the lash.
But that is how it is. Affluent empty nesters in inland towns, with the mortgage paid and cash to spare, liked the notion of a flat by the sea, ready for them to drop down when they took the notion; and the inflation of the property market convinced them they were making a good investment. Meeting that demand made Mr Sweeney his fortune. He now proposes to add to it by building a visitors' centre at the Causeway - the product of a new demand: for foreign tourism could be important for the future of the north coast.
I must say the head of steam worked up over whether the Government or an entrepreneur should pay for this tourist cafe and mini-museum leaves me quite mystified. My own instinct is always to leave things to the market if it is willing to perform. The state does not need to be involved in a minor amenity of this kind. It has many, much more pressing, demands on its limited coffers for hospitals, roads and schools.
As for the suggestion that there is a conflict of interest, Mr Sweeney, it appears, although a DUP member, is not, as alleged by Sinn Fein, its benefactor. Perhaps Sinn Fein and the SDLP succumb too easily to the temptation to transfer the strong-smelling political culture of the Republic across the border. At the moment when the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, is taking the stand in Dublin to account for the circumstances in which he received a suitcase containing £30,000 in banknotes - and allegedly two other similar payments - from businessmen in the 1990s, they should be cautious.
Bertiegate would have done for the leader of any other government in western Europe long ago. Remember the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, and the loan for his Notting Hill mortgage? He resigned. The notable thing about the old Stormont is that, in this sort of thing, it was a remarkably correct and scrupulous place.
One of its more worldly ministers, in charge of a sensitive portfolio, once confided to me that what most amazed him was that no one ever offered him a bribe.
The civil service may no longer be as impeccable as once it seemed to be. But there has been no Stormontgate.