Will Foster provide answers in Causeway controversy or keep public in dark..?

ENVIRONMENT Minister Arlene Foster will be giving evidence to Stormont’s environment committee in a few minutes, with the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre high on the agenda. While most of those interested in the ongoing controversy have no doubt that Foster acted with propriety throughout the affair – she was thrust into the debate because of a party colleague’s failure to inform her that her decision would benefit one of his friends, who’s also a DUP member – it is still possible she can shed some light on matters. For example, Alex Kane notes that “we have absolutely no idea of the nature of the discussion which took place between Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds, nor why it was decided to make their announcements a few hours before the Assembly debate. Was it a party decision, a ministerial decision or a Departmental decision?” And why was Ms Foster “minded” to rubber-stamp Seymour Sweeney’s plans when they only provided for 200 parking spaces? After all, officials were seemingly delaying passing the publicly-funded proposal until it could accommodate 400 cars without spoiling the protected area – and as soon as this objective was met, the DUP Ministers scuppered those plans to back Sweeney’s scheme with half the parking. What possible explanation could there be for this? Some observers have been wondering why the other parties are so weak in their probing of the DUP over the Causeway centre plans. Brian Feeney asked yesterday why open debate about Executive decisions was apparently being stifled at Stormont, adding: “What explains Sinn Fein’s muted response to the Causeway visitor centre controversy?” Here’s why (with more below the fold for those with no subscription). The DUP made greater accountability in government a cornerstone of their conditions for entering a new executive. Let’s see if they can give us confidence in their promise – because there is none at present.Feeney wrote:

SF doesn’t want to stop Arlene Foster or Nigel Dodds in their tracks because you can be sure that not far down the road an SF minister is going to propose something unpalatable and they don’t want it stymied.

The DUP claimed they had renegotiated the Good Friday Agreement in such a way that no minister could force anything through without the consent of the executive and, if necessary, the assembly.

The party is now in the process of proving its claim wrong and SF is not about to stop it.

The truth is that the DUP finds it suits it as well as SF for ministers to be able to paddle their own canoes.

The fact is that both SF and the DUP have an identity of interest in making the machinery of the administration work in a way that suits them.

It’s in nobody’s interest to have a bust-up in the executive.

Anyway, if SF was to show that a DUP minister had done something untoward, there is no way it could get rid of the minister and secondly, people would ask, what are you doing in an executive with them if you don’t trust them and are always sniping at them, metaphorically speaking of course.

The same goes for the DUP, where plenty of people are already asking that question about its Sinn Fein partners.

For the same reasons neither Ian Paisley nor Martin McGuinness is going to admit they are blocking each other in any way in case it stirs memories of Trimble and Mallon and prompts people to ask how can anything substantive be done.

In the end something will have to give.

With issues like education and the numbers of councils and their powers looming there will have to be a day of reckoning.

Turning a blind eye to controversial issues like the Causeway visitors centre or Victims’ Commissioner only postpones the inevitable.

Both main parties are not just pushing the blockage further down the drain, they’re throwing more debris into the drain.

It will all come to a trade-off but one outcome you can be sure of is that the DUP wants as much power for individual ministers as Sinn Fein, so they’ll not rein each other in.

Kane wrote:

The Giant’s Causeway is a World Heritage site, with the potential to generate millions of pounds of revenue into Northern Ireland’s public purse. There may be a convincing argument for allowing a private developer – even one who happens to be a member of the DUP – to run part of the operation, but that argument seems to have been buried. In order to wipe away even the merest whiff of impropriety or cronyism, it would be advisable for both ministers to put their discussions and justifications into the public domain.
. . .

Had Mr Dodds and Mrs Foster saved their announcements until the Assembly debate on Tuesday afternoon, informed the chamber of the fact that Mr Sweeny was also a member of the DUP, and then placed on record every stage of the decision-making process, this whole mess would have been avoided.
The fact that they chose another route entirely is the strongest possible argument for ensuring that the mechanisms are in place to stop such a thing happening again.Those mechanisms are the foundations of democracy, scrutiny, transparency and accountability; the very mechanisms which the DUP claimed to have embedded in the St Andrews’ additions to the Belfast Agreement. It really is about time that we had a formal, funded, effective and official Opposition within the Assembly structure.

  • slug

    ” It really is about time that we had a formal, funded, effective and official Opposition within the Assembly structure.”

    Enter Mr Ford.

  • Nevin

    Just to repeat:

    July 9, 2007: Minister Foster and her officials meet a delegation in Belfast that contained an MLA, a councillor and residents from various parts of the Borough of Coleraine. The agenda dealt with the concerns expressed by some Mountsandel Road, Coleraine, residents about a Seymour Sweeney phased development on their doorsteps. I understand the Minister has put part of the plan on hold; that she was very supportive of the concerns of the residents.

    September 11, 2007: Minister Foster: “A minister, when making decisions, cannot and should not investigate party affiliations of applicants, and I did not do so in this case. I do not know the applicant, have never met him, and know nothing about him.”

    The applicant is Seymour Sweeney.

  • fair_deal


    “I understand the Minister has put part of the plan on hold”

    So on two different applications involving a development company(ies?) run by the same business person she has reached two different decisions. One going against the interests and the other ‘minded’ in favour of the interests of that business person. It undermines rather than reinforces the claims/implications of partiality.

  • Nevin

    FD, I suspect she was only involved in putting stage 2 on hold – a brownie point. You don’t see a problem with her September statement when she had already dealt with the developer’s project in July? Sudden memory loss?

  • fair_deal


    No. I consider it to be in the category of most of the stuff produced so far, a lot of repetition of suspicions but next to no substance. She’d know that Seymour Sweeney or his companies are property developers from the Causeway application, the meeting in July would have not added or detracted to that knowledge.

    This snippet reinforces the case for Foster acting impartially but it some how becomes a grounds for suspicion ie “I suspect she was only involved in putting stage 2 on hold – a brownie point.” If she says yes its a pro-DUP member conspiracy if she says no it is a conspiracy to hide another pro-DUP consipracy. Damned if she does or doesn’t.

    BTW out of interest who was the MLA and councillor at the meeting?

    This is an clear opportunity for some decent investigative journalism about the decision instead we are getting nudge and winks and whatabout this heh heh but very little substance. If such an investigation finds substance of partiality or corruption then reputations and careers should be on the line but nothing like substance has appeared so far.

    The other get-out of “ahh but all the evidence will be hidden/destroyed/untraceable” is another crock, NI is too small a place with many a personality clash/feud/rivalry to take advantage of plus much to do with this has been handled by public bodies that leave lots of paper trails behind them.

  • Nevin

    fd, you’ve overlooked the comment that ‘she knew nothing about him’ – when she did.

    She now appears to be on the run so far as the private developer’s Causeway Visitor’s Centre project is concerned. Presumably this will lead to internal repercussions amongst members of the DUP, seeing that one of them is the developer.

    If the MLA and councillor wish to go public, they’re free to do so.

    I think we’ve had some good ‘investigative journalism’ on Slugger already. Why don’t you add to it? IMO the planning process is rotten to the core so you’d be performing a public service. Why not leave the political spin to the DUP PR department?

  • fair_deal

    “you’ve overlooked the comment that ‘she knew nothing about him’ – when she did”

    I haven’t overlooked it. It is engaging in word parsing and an example of whatabout this heh heh I mentioned earlier.

    “If the MLA and councillor wish to go public, they’re free to do so.”

    A fine display of openess and transparency. Their party?

    “Why don’t you add to it?”

    I have nothing to add to it as I have no knowledge or any evidence of corruption or partiality in this decision. If I had evidence of corruption the police would have it and partiality a journalist would.

    “IMO the planning process is rotten to the core”

    You are feel to hold whatever opinion and your opinion may be correct but thinking it that doesn’t substantiate a specific allegation against anyone.

    “Why not leave the political spin to the DUP PR department?”

    You are doing a sufficiently good spin job they maybe should employ you.

  • Nevin

    “It is engaging in word parsing”

    LOL She can hardly know nothing if she put part of the Mountsandel project on hold.

    “You are doing a sufficiently good spin job”

    You mean like link to the UNESCO and other reports. You’re a geg.

    Nice timing!!!!

  • fair_deal


    “You mean like link to the UNESCO and other reports.”

    Nope I was talking about your comments on this thread such as “I suspect she was only involved in putting stage 2 on hold – a brownie point”. and your sudden coyness for detail about the meeting in July.

    “Nice timing”

    This is the result of the court ruling on a decision taken by a direct rule minister. Are you implying the judiciary are somehow involved in dodgy deals with developers? Or part of some greater DUP conspiracy?

  • Roland

    On 29th August I attended a meeting of a voluntary organisation that I help out with and while waiting for the meeting to begin my brother-in-law who also belongs to the same organisation begins telling us about dining out the night before at Bourbon in Gt. Victoria Street.
    He went on to tell us that at the next table to his there were two gentlemen one of whom was Ian Jr. and while trying to overhear the conversation he heard Ian Jr. tell his companion that ” the Paisley name has to be kept out of it”.
    Naturally we made a few comments among ourselves and then the meeting started and it was forgotten about.
    Now my brother-in-law then went on a weeks Holiday returning Sunday past, I was in England for a few days at the start of the week and so today was the first I got to speak to him and in the course of the conversation I asked him if he had heard about the Causeway controversey, I mentioned to him the coincidence that just a few days after he saw Ian Jr. he was all over the news, he told me that he heard about it when he got back and when he saw the photograph of Mr.Sweeney he recognised him as the man that Ian Jr was dining with.
    Now I wasn’t there but he swears that’s who it was.

  • Nevin

    FD, after highlighlighting the contradiction between her assertion and the meeting on July 9, I thought I would be generous to the novice minister and acknowledge her apparently sympathetic response to the concerns of the delegation. Fair’s fair, FD

    The minister threatened legal action so it’s only fair that I protect my sources; also, my research is work in progress. There’s hardly any need to name the councillor when the councillors were unanimous in their reluctance to follow the ministers into the cul-de-sac.

    Nice timing is still nice timing, FD.

  • fair_deal


    “The minister threatened legal action so it’s only fair that I protect my sources”

    I don’t see how the legal threat applies by saying who the politician was. The level of detail you already have put in the public domain – ie date place description of participants and topic of discussion – means all other participants at the meeting including Mrs Foster can identify the politician/source.

    “my research is work in progress.”

    Happy researching.

    Please be in no doubt that despite my scepticism if someone has behaved improperly they should bounce twice out of the DUP’s door and if there has been any corruption they should be put before the courts.

    “Nice timing is still nice timing”

    This nudge nudge stuff seriously detracts from the other detailed stuff.

  • Rapunsel

    What bothers me in all of this is Arlene Fosters use of the word ” minded” ,. Iam not clear and I’m not so sure she has been with the public what this actually means. She fumbled this this evening and personally I’m not sure that ministers chared with planning decisions should be announcing at all that they are ” minded ” to do make one decision or another. Surely the issue here is to either give planning approval with restrictions as necessary or not to give it. a ” minded” decision serves no one and strikes me as uncertainty and a lack of decisiveness and perhaps a weak minister conscious of potentially going against advice from civil servants and courting negative publicity

  • Sean

    HMMMMM Arent the schools waiting with bated breath foir a ruling on the 11+ exam from the SF minister?

    Perhaps thats the skunk in the wood pile waiting for the DUP

  • Nevin

    fd, there is a minimal amount of nudging so ‘seriousness’ is an inapt choice.

    I’m surprised that the Minister threatened legal action when the damage so far has been self-inflicted.

    I’ve referred to the planning process as being rotten to the core. The Minister and her officials would need to identify the problems, devise solutions and remove the rotten apples, whether they be planners, politicians or developers. Is she fit for this purpose?

  • fair_deal


    “I’m surprised that the Minister threatened legal action”

    AFAIK she has a case unrelated to all this going through the legal system as we speak. She is a qualified solicitor which is maybe the source of her litigiousness.

    “Is she fit for this purpose?”

    I know Arlene from my younger days. So I would have a reasonable impression of her personality and understanding of her family background. She wouldn’t have a lot of time for me (not surprising as I was a very angry, uncouth and rude young man in those days) but I would consider her fit for purpose.

  • Nevin

    “I was a very angry, uncouth and rude young man in those days”

    Well, you’re older now …

  • Ian

    “What bothers me in all of this is Arlene Fosters use of the word “ minded” ,. Iam not clear and I’m not so sure she has been with the public what this actually means.”

    It is commonly used in planning committee resolutions in England, where the committee (having heard the arguments of supporters and objectors) are going against the recommendation of the planning officers. It’s a useful ‘safety valve’ to avoiding hasty decisions being made in the heat of committee debates.

    The officers then make a further report to the next session of the committee advising of the consequences of the decision. e.g. if the committee are ‘minded to refuse’ when the officers have recommended approval, the officers subsequent report outlines whether the suggested reasons for refusal are likely to stand up in the event of an appeal by the applicant.

    Of course, in NI the local planning committees only act as advisory bodies and the decisions are taken at ministerial level. But assuming the same meaning of the word ‘minded’ applies in NI’s different circumstances, then in the case of the Causeway Centre, if the Minister was ‘minded to approve’, this would suggest that she was going against the officers’ recommendation to refuse the application.