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11 October 2007 Edition

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Causeway row now reaches DUP leader's door

THE controversy surrounding the DUP’s support for a private developer’s plan to build a visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway in North Antrim has reached the door of the party leader, Ian Paisley Snr.
A letter to the Heritage and Lottery Fund (HLF), obtained by the Belfast evening newspaper the Belfast Telegraph, reveals how the DUP leader supported developer Seymour Sweeney’s bid to build the heritage centre.
Paisley argued that Sweeney’s proposal had the backing of UNESCO, the UN body that oversees World Heritage sites like the Causeway, when he criticised the HLF’s refusal to grant-aid the Sweeney bid.
Writing to the HLF, Paisley claimed the Sweeney proposal had the backing of UNESCO. He wrote: “UNESCO saw and approved the plans and were very impressed by the proposal.” But Mechtild Rossler of UNESCO rebutted the claim, saying her organisation does not “decide on proposals” and “would not support anything without going through the necessary procedures”.
The dispute centred on the Giant’s Causeway proposals, put forward by North Antrim property developer Seymour Sweeney, has embarrassed the DUP.
After it was revealed, in early September, that DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster was “minded” to approve the Sweeney blueprint, and then her DUP colleague, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Nigel Doods, withdrew funding for a public development plan, Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay raised questions about the relationship between Sweeney and the DUP.
Initially, DUP junior minister Ian Paisley Jnr maintained that he simply “knew of” Sweeney. It later came to light that Sweeney signed the nomination papers for a DUP election candidate, had sold Paisley Jnr a house on the North Antrim coast, and had actually spent his leisure time with him, going on a fishing trip with the DUP politician.


DUP DISCOMFORT
The latest revelation, that Dr Paisley lobbied both the lottery fund and UNESCO on Sweeney’s behalf, can only add to the discomfort being felt by the party over the issue.
Moyle and Coleraine councils, which benefit from the tourism generated by the 500,000 visitors annually to the Giant’s Causeway, have opposed the privatisation of the site and have come out in favour of public ownership.
All the DUP members on both councils supported public ownership. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin North Antrim MLA Daithí McKay has again questioned “the handling of the decisions about the visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway by both Environment Minister Arlene Foster and Enterprise Minister Nigel Dodds.
“We need to get full disclosure so that we can not just uncover what has happened but also, more importantly, so that we can get a new visitors’ centre,” the Sinn Féin MLA said.
“It is clear that it would be a catastrophe to move ahead with private development proposals that would threaten the World Heritage status of the site.
“This is a natural resource that belongs to the people of Ireland and that is of immense long-term value. Sinn Féin’s preference is for the site and the development of its facilities to remain in public ownership so that it can benefit not just the local community but our society and economy as a whole and so that we can ensure that environmental concerns are paramount.”
Sinn Féin has tabled a motion for debate in the Assembly and MLAs will be able to discuss these issues in the coming weeks.
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