Northern Ireland

Consultations continue for NI National Park

Alex Attwood
Image caption Environment Minister Alex Attwood has called for an extended consultation

After more than a decade of consultations and negotiations, Northern Ireland is no closer to having its own national park.

It is the only part of the UK or Ireland without one.

The frustration has led to the present Environment Minister Alex Attwood calling for an extended consultation but one that will end with the designation of potential park sites.

A consultation is already in place, but was limited to discussing possible legislation to set a park up.

It has been extended by a month in the hope of pushing the project forward enough to reach a decision.

The minister has made it clear that it is not just a copy of existing parks that he wants to see. Instead he is looking for a "Special National Park" or even more than one.

"A model of Special National Parks - that is fit for purpose for circumstances here - is my aim," said Mr Attwood.

"This model will be different from that in England and different again from the model in Scotland.

"But the argument that Northern Ireland should have Special National Parks, with even better management of park areas, with the potential of positive development, new jobs and critically, respect for the local people and community - is one I believe in and will argue for."

Almost a decade ago, a previous minister thought the matter was all sorted bar the shouting.

It turned out that it was the shouting that brought the proposal to its knees rather abruptly.

Effective opposition

The proposal then was to designate the Mourne Mountains as a national park. But some of the locals would have none of it.

As strident as it turned out, effective opposition was mounted and the proposal was abandoned.

Arguments included the perceived effect on property prices and the increase of planning control.

Image caption The Giant's Causeway has been proposed as a oandidate for national park status in the past

Various attempts were brought in to restart the project to no avail.

In March this year, the previous Environment Minister Edwin Poots introduced a White Paper on Proposed Enabling Legislation for National Parks.

Open to discussion it was due to close its public consultation early in September. It is this document that the current environment minister has extended.

But this is a subject that has lost its way.

Some of those who have championed the idea - mainly for the Mournes - have dropped out, perhaps exhausted by rhetoric and negative claims.

And with it goes the much lauded financial and environment advantages of such a park.

Ironically the fear of tight planning control lost much of its threat when a tough planning policy for the countryside, known as PPS 21, was introduced a couple of years ago.

Now the game has moved on. The present proposal suggests different locations, a bigger and better plan and the potential for more than one park.

Other sites that are just as feasible as the Mournes include the Fermanagh Lakeland, the north coast and glens and the Sperrins.

'Proposed criteria'

And it will be a new team advising the minister.

"I intend bringing together a panel of experts from these islands to advise me which areas most closely fit the proposed criteria. They will identify candidates for possible designation," said Mr Attwood.

"It is not a time for fixed positions - it is a time for a new debate."

Ironically, the future of any national park in Northern Ireland could also depend in part on how long the environment minister stays in post.

There has been a steady turnaround of ministers over the last few years. The waxing and waning of the proposed park seems to depend on the priorities and focus of the minister of the day.

So until a national park becomes a national obsession, it could well remain on the long finger.

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