Further detail on those lands at Ballee…

The following is an opinion piece written by Councillor Stephen Nicoll, which mulls over some of the intricate issues are the Ballee land, perhaps the most controversial item mentioned in the memo released Jim Allister by Freedom of Information request by the NIO. It’s particularly interesting since it was written the day before the release, without, so far as we can tell, any foreknowledge of the release of that document. It’s a useful foil to some of the feverish speculation doing the rounds at the moment.By Councillor Stephen Nicoll

“The announcement that an enquiry will be held into the Ballee land issue goes to very heart of public confidence in the integrity of politics. The vesting of private land for public good has always been a difficult policy area and one where the sometimes devastating impact on individuals must be balanced against the greater needs of the wider community. In those instances where vesting does take place it is incumbent on the vesting agency to ensure that the need for the land can not be met in any other way and that the process has been open and transparent.

Value is of course a priority issue and for the land owner the use of what was previously the Valuation and Land Agency and is now Land and Property Services has ensured that the price is set at the fair market value. Where land has been vested and is no longer needed the principle should always be that first refusal on the land is given to the previous owners, again based on the current fair market value.

If Ian Paisley Jnr interceded on his constituents behalf to ensure this was the case then his intervention was justified and correct and should be supported by legislation to ensure that in future land owners have first refusal on the resale of previously vested land. Such legislation should also detail a time frame for the use of vested land, for example if vested land is not used for the purposes for which it was vested within say 5 years it should be declared surplus to requirement.

The significant area of concern is whether or not Mr Paisley interfered further in the process on the question of price. If as reported the price set by the relevant agency was £75 million then that is the price that should have been paid. It has been reported in the Belfast Telegraph that the original land owners had negotiated a deal which would have seen the land transfer to developers for an additional 10% of the purchase price thereby earning them £7.5 million pounds on the market value of the land.

If at this point Mr Paisley used his influence to have the price reduced to £50 million then there are two areas of concern. The first is that the NI Executive struggling with an inadequate budget have lost out on a further £25 million pounds which could have gone some way to addressing some of the infrastructure deficits or social housing need in Northern Ireland. Indeed given that any profit from the sale of the site has resulted from a lack of Government investment in Ballymena there is a case that all of it should be directed to projects in the Ballymena area. In that case Ian Paisley Jnr has argued for a reduction in Government investment in Ballymena. The second issue concerns the relevant land owners who having negotiated a fair deal with developers have seen the value of that deal drop from £7.5 million to £5 million apparently on the intervention of Ian Paisley Jnr.

The question any enquiry must look at is who has lost and who has gained from this episode. Certainly the developers have gained in that 96 acres of land which could have cost them £82.5 million will now only cost them £55 million a saving of £27.5 million pounds. On the other hand the people of Northern Ireland and especially the people of Ballymena have lost in that a vital £25 million is not available for investment in roads, hospitals, social housing or schools.

Under the terms of the agreement outlined in the Belfast Telegraph the land owners have also lost a not insignificant £2.5 million. Potentially however the greatest loss will be in public confidence in the democratic process. If people cannot have faith in propriety of those they elect then democracy, for which such a high price has been paid, is the loser. Those engaged in this enquiry have the responsibility to protect the structures of Government from those who would use such structures to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland.”

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  • Mick, perhaps it ought to be pointed out that Stephen Nicholl(sic) is a UUP councillor on Antrim Borough Council.

  • Outofinterest

    Mick did say he was a councillor, why does it matter what party he is with?

  • Jane B

    I was in Stormont earlier today and witnessed IPJ being interviewed … a very amusing sight! He was very clearly under pressure. However, as Stephen pointed out, the real impact of this shameful incident is the loss of confidence among the electorate at the capacity and professionalism of our elected representatives. How is Northern Ireland going to grow as a country when wee boys have been given such important roles?

  • No, no: Nevin @ 12:15 PM has a valid point.

    We’re in danger of losing the plot here; and Nicholl is making too many partisan gybes for comfort.

    The issue is Ballee vis-à-vis Jnr and Sweeney (sorry: “Seaport Investments”, which name happens to be taken from Sweeney’s address).

    Too much of Jnr’s wish-list goes back to the Sweeney agenda. For example, an earlier comment, Bole @ 06:53 PM mocked the inclusion of the A26. Yet, the Sweeney interview with the Coleraine Times (7 December 2006: it’s on line, too) has this:

    “We need to re-invent the area and create an attractive destination.
    “If people want the A26 corridor, including Coleraine, to grow then there has to be investment and development.

    I suggest we need to poke around to find who is behind Sweeney. That is why I threw into the previous thread the name of David Hamilton-Brown and his International Financial Data Services (IFDS), of Billericay, Essex, with links to Talon Group, Credit Suisse First Boston, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

    Mr Hamilton-Brown can hardly object to such probing. He is on record as saying:

    … everybody looking at the same data is better than copying data around and saying my data are better than yours or yours are better than mine.

    We can now see this saga goes back to 1996, at least. Can someone, or all of us together try to construct the narrative and chronology? I’m up for it if others give me the info (not opinion) they have.

  • OK, paranoia is setting in.

    What about this in the Daily Telegraph:

    The New York-based developer Alistair Hanna has signed a 125-year lease for 356 acres of land between Portballintrae and the Giant’s Causeway, and plans to develop a £45m golf resort, which Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland was rumoured to be interested in.

    The project will include a 125-bedroom hotel on the land once owned by Runkerry House, an 1880s mansion, itself the focus of the most exclusive conversion yet seen in North Antrim. Seymour Sweeney, a local developer responsible for schemes in Portrush and Portballintrae, converted the mansion into 23 sizable apartments in 1999. The biggest went for £425,000 and was the first to sell.

    Is this any relation to? …

    Nancy [Hanna] entered the parish ministry in 1985 serving as Associate Rector and then Interim Rector at St. Mary’s, Scarborough, NY for four years. She was Associate Rector at Christ’s Church, Rye, NY, for six years. During a 1995 sabbatical leave in Oxford, England to study methods of evangelism, she encountered the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton Church, in central London and returned to teach Alpha in her home for her Rye parishioners. She organized the first two Alpha training conferences in New York attended by nearly 1000 clergy and lay leaders in 1996-97.

    In September 1996, the Rev. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar (rector) of Holy Trinity Brompton, leader of Alpha at HTB since 1991 and pioneer of the global expansion of the Alpha Course to over 150 countries on every continent, asked Nancy’s husband Dr. Alistair M. Hanna to leave his 25 year career as a managing director of McKinsey and Co., the management consulting firm, to found Alpha USA.

    There is a local connection, in the QUB Foundation Board:

    Dr Alistair Hanna

    Alistair graduated from Queen’s in 1968 with an honours degree in Physics and in 1972 a PhD in Nuclear Physics. In 1974 he graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA and joined the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in New York, becoming a partner in 1979, a Director in 1986, and Managing Director of the Stamford Office in 1993. Since retiring from McKinsey in 1997 he has founded the not-for-profit organisation “Alpha North America” which offers the Alpha course to churches, and is now in charge of Latin America for Alpha International. He also serves on the Board of Advisors of a private equity company called Red Diamond, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp, the Board of Tom’s of Maine, the Board of Fountain House, and the Vestry of Trinity Wall Street. He lives in Lawrence, New York and is married to the Reverend Nancy Hanna, with a daughter Anne Warner.

  • David Ford

    Interesting piece from my Council colleague*, but I am not sure Stephen is completely accurate.

    Where land has been vested and is no longer needed the principle should always be that first refusal on the land is given to the previous owners, again based on the current fair market value.

    I am not a lawyer, but as I understand the precedents, this is not always correct. It definitely does apply if the land is substantially unaltered and the previous owner wants it back for the same purpose: the defining case was ‘Critchell Down’ when farmland compulsorily acquired by the RAF became surplus post-1945 and the previous owner wanted it back to farm. The High Court agreed that the RAF could not sell it on the open market.

    However, if land has been substantively changed – and this would include Planning Status – and the owner wants to use it for something else – like sell it t a property developer – then I believe these rules may not apply.

    Which may even reinforce Stephen’s general points.

    *Nevin knows I am an Alliance Councillor

  • Malcolm, Ali Hanna and I are acquainted!!

    PS It’s possible that Seaport (NI) Limited might oppose such a ‘rival’ development.

  • Nevin @ 06:05 PM:

    … which surprises me not a lot. As Mr Dibdin observed, of next door: “It’s a right little, tight little island.”

    So, where’s the money coming from? I merely note that Hanna is Mitshubishi (a.k.a. “Red Diamond”).

  • Not so much a small island, Malcolm; more the informality of the internet and the mindset of the ‘global village’.

    The Spa and Seaport resources might well be ‘inscrutable’ 🙂

  • Nevin @ 07:23 PM:
    But can we unscrew the “inscrutable”?


    Seaport (NI) Limited exists as a “Small unquoted company filing only an abbreviated balance sheet“.

    That is certainly so until mid-summer of 2005. Then, in the next eighteen months, there is a flurry of activity involving, by my count, over three dozen mortgage transactions. Now, I’m not up to paying £18 a throw for “further information”; but the change in activity raises an eyebrow.

  • Malcolm,

    Here’s an earlier quote of mine on Slugger:

    “Seaport Investments Limited (NI25468) became Seaport (NI) Limited (NI025468) on August 1, 2007.

    What’s going on? Should the Government be investigating the background to all companies before ‘getting into bed with them’?

    Posted by Nevin on Sep 14, 2007 @ 02:13 PM”


    Do a search at the NI Companies Registry site. Also the charges are only £1 a throw!!

    Note the flurry of mortgage details on your links on June 23 one day after an application was put in for a name change. Perhaps worthy of specialist investigation?

  • Damian O’Loan

    I would suggest a quick look at the IPJ website. He may wish to consider an update.


    An earnest IPJ gazes into the middle distance and three words flash up:




  • Perhaps the strapline should be updated too, Damian:

    “The Ulster that forgets its past is destined to repeat the mistakes of Ian Paisley jnr”

  • steve48


    The caveat is that the land is available at the current market value which takes into account any material change in circumstances such as a change in planning designation.

  • Nevin @ 10:14 PM:

    Yes: I forgot that. You were expanding on the planning application, as I now recall. I’ve now checked back and located the Ballymoney Times piece, which was contemporary.

    The more one looks at it, the whole Causeway and Runkerry complex begins to make more (and more disturbing) sense, even if in an Albert Speer sort of way:

    The application seeks outline planning permission for the development of a visitor and study centre – to be located under a grassed circular dome and measuring 2,823 square metres in size [that’s half an average football pitch under a pseudo-tumulus!] – which has been designed to accommodate up to 750,000 visitors per annum and which includes the following elements: An interpretative area, including an audio visual theatre; A 200 seat restaurant, kitchen and related catering space; Retail space for the sale of gifts and souvenirs; Visitor services including a post office and bureau de change; Staff offices and library facilities.

    Also included are: parking provision for 200 cars (the majority of which will be underground) [that doesn’t leave much space for the facilities listed in the preceding paragraph, surely] and 8 coaches; A reorganisation of the road access involving a realignment of the Causeway Road, Runkerry Road and the access to the existing car park and visitor centre and Causeway Hotel; a reorganisation of the pedestrian links in and around the site and reorganisation of the access and car parking facilities at ‘The Nook’ Public House.[Much of that reorganisation will service facilities other than the Causeway Centre, I note.]

    That’s to refresh my recollection as much as anything.

    I know you’re closer to the action, and I’m a mere daytripper in these parts, but I spent sufficient years machinating in London Borough government to recognise the familiar whiff of rat in Moyle DC minutes. For example, 23 July 2007, after a yawn-inducing discussion of a range of items — attending Puck Fair, redecorating the Mayoral Parlour — we arrive at the final item:

    Runkerry Meeting

    Councillor Black stated that this had not been an official Council meeting but that the outcome had been that a letter had been sent to the Minister expressing support for the Runkerry project.

    In reply to Councillor McConaghy, the Clerk stated that this was not an official Council meeting as no minutes were taken; he stated that this was an office meeting. [Huh? new one on me! I note, however, that a decision for action had been taken.]

    In reply to Councillor McCambridge, the Clerk stated that the Planning Application for this project had been in the system since 2001 and it was hoped that a positive determination would be reached soon.

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s a trail buried here somewhere. I’ve acquired some fragments, but not enough solid material to share at this stage. Good work Malcolm!

  • Danny O’Connor

    In 2005 just after the elections when the DUP became the largest party in NI, a certain member of the party was busy phoning the acting chief executive of Larne council (whilst he was at downing street in talks with the prime minister to – according to his manifesto -negotiate a fairer deal).He was trying to expedite a property transfer of council land to a well known property developer -guess who.

  • Danny O’Connor

    If you wake up in the morning and the ground is covered with white powdery stuff-it is a safe bet to assume(even though you didn’t see it) that it snowed overnight.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks Danny! But a trail has to be solid before it can be trusted.

  • Danny O’Connor

    Solid as a rock Mick, I was there(with the acting chief executive) while we were hammering out the rudimentaries of a 4 year power sharing agreement in Larne-The so called bangor agreement.

  • Wow! Compliments from Mick himself!

    On with the motley …

    We need a complete history of this whole thing.

    That means backtracking beyond the 1996 sale of a public asset (Runkerry House) into private ownership, without any public scrutiny of any worth. Everything, including the running saga of the Visitors’ Centre, the hypothetical golf course and spa, has to stem from that. I also feel the history and philanthropy of the McNaghtons deserves no less.

    Then we have the curious emergence, overnight, of a provincial wheeler-and-dealer into a mega-million “developer” with multi-national connections. I am not totally out-of-sympathy for our Seymour: he has behaved according to his ilk: at least we can see his motives. And those motives are not, if we take his interviews at face value, malign or purely self-interested.

    Finally we have the more murky, nay impenetrable, world of North Antrim politics, which includes the first point above, and which is the biggie.

    As I said before, I’m merely scratching at what I can establish in the public record. Doubtless, I’ll try and codify this into a blog entry sometime, that others may snipe at it. I’m still open to offers to be a mail-box for the discoveries of third parties.

  • “Further detail on those lands at Ballee…”

    … they’ve now been sold by DSD for £4 million. Perhaps DSD should have taken Seaport (NI) Ltd’s £50 million 🙂