RAF jets cause row in South Down

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RAF fighter jets are causing controversy in the Mourne area of South Down.

The GR4 Tornados, which are not based in Northern Ireland, have been carrying out low-flying training manoeuvres over the mountains in recent weeks.

Several local residents have complained that the planes are flying too low over residential areas, causing distress to children and animals.

Local politicians have expressed conflicting views over the issue.

Eamonn O'Neill, SDLP chairman of Down District Council, told the BBC that he had received several complaints, one of them "major".

"One man's children were badly scared by the noise of a low flying plane," he said.

"I don't see why they have to do this near places such as Dundrum and Newcastle.

"Why can they not carry out their manoeuvres in a more remote area where they're not going to annoy people and upset their lives?"

'Cultural sensitivity'

Cadogan Enright, Green Party candidate for South Down, agreed with Mr O'Neill.

Despite his own father having been in the RAF, he said that more cultural sensitivity needed to be shown by the Ministry of Defence.

"Since the British government has recognised that Northern Ireland is unique in having a British and Irish community it probably needs to be a little more sensitive here than it would be, say in Wales," he said.

Image caption,
The RAF Red Arrows visited Newcastle last summer

"Overwhelmingly in South Down people wouldn't support foreign military adventures by the British government, in Iraq or any other countries," he added.

Willie Clarke of Sinn Fein said a substantial elderly population in the area were concerned about the noise "which sounded like thunder".

"Accidents are rare, but we're also concerned that something could go wrong - we don't want to be in the flight path," he said.

"It's the first time something like this has happened in the area - I don't know if it's a bravado exercise from the local Ballykinler base or some sort of normalisation, but we're obviously concerned."

However, DUP representative Jim Wells took a different view: "I have had no complaints from people who are supportive of the Army," he said.

"We're part of the United Kingdom. Why should we not be using our terrain like everywhere else for manoeuvres?

"If it helps save the lives of aircrew and prevent injury and loss of planes, then I think it's a very good thing."

John McCallister of the UUP agreed that the RAF were carrying out "important work".

"It's unfortunate, and maybe they should take some precautions, such as letting people know in advance," he said.

UKIP candidate Henry Reilly said he was "delighted to see the aircraft in the area".

"Northern Ireland has missed out on this sort of thing in years gone by," he said.

"I was on the east coast of Scotland and saw something similar. Hundreds of people turned out to watch it, and everyone was saying how good it was to see such a spectacle."

Alliance Party candidate David Griffin said he was unaware of any disturbances, and had received no complaints from constituents.

"I only hope (the training) was for a useful purpose," he said.

Red Arrows

Mr Wells drew a comparison with the Harry Ferguson Festival in Newcastle in August last year, when the Red Arrows, the RAF's stunt display team, were welcomed by community leaders from both sides, including Mr O'Neill.

According to Mr Wells, the Red Arrows were doing very similar manoeuvres, and caused "a great deal of joy."

However Mr O'Neill said: "This is a totally different kind of thing altogether.

"People were prepared for the Red Arrows, they knew they were coming."

Mr Enright pointed out that a balance was achieved at last year's festival, as the Irish Air Corps was also invited, to complement the presence of the RAF.

There are 11 candidates standing in the Northern Ireland Assembly election in the South Down constituency. A full list is available on the BBC News Vote 2011 website.