Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's Hazzard defends 'neutral position' on Northern Ireland incinerator plan

By Jonathan Bell

Former Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard has defended taking a "neutral" position on a controversial plan to build a massive incinerator on the outskirts of Belfast.

It comes after the department approved planning permission for the project which will collect waste and burn it to produce electricity in a former quarry in Mallusk.

Thousands objected to the plan leading to SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan rejecting it in 2015 saying it wasn't needed and would affect recycling efforts. However Arc21, which is behind the plan, took it to appeal and won.

One for the factors in the decision was that the department, then headed by Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard, took a "neutral" stance on the matter.

The Planning Appeals Commission, in October 2016, heard how circumstances had "moved on" since Mark H Durkan's decision and it was "no longer seeking to defend the stated reasons for refusal".

"Whilst pertinent in considering the background to the case, comments made by the previous minister, Mark Durkan, no longer represent the department's stance on acceptability or otherwise, of the proposal," Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) ruling stated.

Neutrality puts it all back in the hands of the civil service. Mark H Durkan

Chris Hazzard faced a barrage of criticism over the comments on social media. His party has long held an opposition to any incinerator plan and yesterday MLA Gerry Kelly branded the decision to overturn the original decision a "disgrace".

Responding to criticism the now South Down MP Hazzard said it was "important" that the minister - as the final decision maker - was neutral until the point when the decision had to be made.

He rejected that his neutrality "shifted" the department's position against the incinerator and gave civil servants cover to approve the plan.

"As final decision maker I was protecting integrity of PAC process," he tweeted.

Speaking on the BBC, former SDLP minister Durkan said he was surprised at the timing of the decision.

He said that people would be "surprised" at Sinn Fein's stance on rejecting the incinerator when their own minister took a "neutral" stance.

He said there was also confusion as to how a decision of such "magnitude" could be made while no minister was in place. He argued that the decision was so big it should have been taken by the entire Executive collectively.

"Neutrality puts it all back in the hands of the civil service to take the decision, which I don't think they have the ability to do."

He said the PAC decision was wrong and he could "sleep easy" as he believed that the right decision had been made by him during his tenure.

"They say there is no evidence that it is dangerous, where is the evidence it is safe?

"It seems civil service can pick and chose what they can and can't do," he said.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said his party had always been clear on its opposition to the plan. He rejected that they current political stalemate had contributed to the decision being made.

Arc21's Ricky Burnett said there were hundreds of facilities like the Mallusk proposal across Europe in cities and in the country side.

"It is tried and tested," he said.

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