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Controversy giving DUP a Causeway for concern

One month after developer Seymour Sweeney's Causeway centre plans were boosted by DUP ministers, David Gordon unravels the twists and turns in an unfolding controversy

No-one who stood at the charred wreckage of the Giant's Causeway visitor centre in April 2000 could have imagined that it would still not be replaced seven years later.

Or that the issue would somehow develop into the first big policy-bust up of a fledgling devolved Assembly.

It has become complicated over the years but the basics are straightforward enough.

The aim is to replace the premises that were burnt down in 2000 with a centre that enhances the visitor experience at Northern Ireland's top tourist attraction.

It's agreed that it must not harm the environmental setting or jeopardise the Causeway's status as the province's only Unesco World Heritage site.

There are three main players in the locality.

The National Trust owns the famous Causeway stones themselves. It also runs a tea room and shop on the temporary visitor centre site, above the stones.

Moyle Council, meanwhile, owns the car-park plus a shop and an audio-visual theatre.

Then there's Seymour Sweeney, the leading north coast property tycoon, who has amassed a sizeable landholding in the district.

He owns both the Giant's Causeway steam train service which runs from nearby Bushmills, and the Nook pub/restaurant close to the Causeway car park.

Mr Sweeney has been bidding for years to build a new profit-making visitor centre on his land.

The Trust and Moyle Council have both signed up to an alternative publicly-funded scheme that was backed by Government and also involved the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

However, this is not a simple public sector versus private sector debate.

Even Mr Sweeney's admirers would probably agree that he is a controversial developer.

Housing development is itself contentious on the north coast.

There are general concerns - echoed round the province - about the risk of over-development, with the swelling number of new apartments and other new buildings.

Added to this is the fear of 'holiday home blight' - when increasing numbers of properties in a neighbourhood are only occupied on a part-time basis, and shops and community life in general suffer as a result.

Taking full advantage of house-building opportunities is what developers do, and Mr Sweeney has certainly been good at it.

But it has not won him any popularity contests. He's been involved in bitter planning and right-of-way disputes with resident groups over the years.

He's been victorious in a large share of them too, but that has not earned him many more admirers.

The businessman has enjoyed the backing of DUP leader Ian Paisley and his politician son, but is certainly not universally loved in the party.

East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell has strongly opposed his developments in a string of cases.

Mr Sweeney's interest in the Causeway area has gone beyond the visitor centre issue.

He has tabled previous proposals for a hotel, tea-room and craft centre.

A month ago today, the businessman received a massive boost that caught many by surprise when DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster announced that she was "of a mind" to approve his long-standing planning application for a visitor centre.

Her party colleague, Enterprise Minister Nigel Dodds, then swiftly shelved the Government scheme for a centre, involving the National Trust and Moyle Council.

A huge row erupted that must surely have taken Mrs Foster aback.

It centred, firstly, on the fact that Mr Sweeney was a DUP member and that the Paisleys had been among his strongest supporters.

The Environment Minister has stressed that she had no knowledge of the developer's party ties, and had not been approached on his application by her party leader or his son.

She has nevertheless remained under fire over her provisional planning decision, particularly since the Belfast Telegraph revealed that environment chiefs in her own department recommended a refusal.

It is also known that Planning Service officials working on Mr Sweeney's application had started preparing official grounds for turning it down.

The final recommendations made to the minister by the Planning Service's top-level Management Board remain under wraps.

Mrs Foster is adamant that this advice should stay confidential until she has made her final decision.

That puts her on a collision course with the Assembly's Environment Committee, which has requested the documentation, citing its right to seek Government papers.

Meanwhile, the extent to which Dr Paisley and his son have lobbied for Mr Sweeney is becoming clearer day by day.

Ian Paisley jnr did not help himself with his "I know of him" answer, when asked on BBC Radio Ulster if he supported the developer.

Quite a few people spluttered in disbelief on hearing that - among them this journalist.

In 2001, when I first started reporting on the Causeway centre story, I was invited to a private briefing with Mr Sweeney and his PR adviser.

Ian Paisley jnr attended as well - as an enthusiastic supporter of the developer rather than a neutral observer.

The DUP MLA has backed other business projects of Mr Sweeney's in recent years including the Nook pub redevelopment at the Causeway - despite Mr Paisley's snr's well-known views on alcohol.

It was also learned last month that Mr Paisley jnr and his in-laws have second homes in Bushmills that were built by the developer. Mr Sweeney confirmed this, stressing that the two properties had been sold at full market value.

Last week, this newspaper discovered that Mr Paisley snr had written to the Heritage Lottery Fund in January 2003, lobbying for a grant for the businessman's visitor centre plans.

The letter claimed that Mr Sweeney's scheme had the support of world heritage body Unesco. This assertion has been flatly rejected by Unesco, but defended as "fair" by Mr Paisley jnr.

Unesco meanwhile represents one of the main hurdles in the way of planning permission for the developer.

It sent a mission team to the Causeway in February 2003 to draw up recommendations for a new visitor centre.

Its conclusions remain its official policy to this day, and they would rule out Mr Sweeney's plans as being too big and in the wrong place.

Unesco has asked the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in London - its main link to UK Government authorities - for a report on the Causeway centre situation.

Its requirements will be one of the key factors on Mrs Foster's mind when she makes her final decision.

The minister clearly has some thinking to do yet.

So what caused a change of heart?

July 31, 2007 First Minister Ian Paisley hails freedom of information disclosures in Northern Ireland and declares that Stormont departments are "making considerable strides towards achieving our goal of more open government"

October 4, 2007 The Belfast Telegraph, using the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that DUP leader Ian Paisley made highly questionable claims while lobbying for a grant for would-be Giant's Causeway centre developer Seymour Sweeney

October 8, 2007 First Minister Ian Paisley threatens to curtail Freedom of Information provisions, while slamming use of the Act by " lazy journalists who will do not any work"

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