Silence is golden rule on £6m Gobbins project

The tubular bridge at the Gobbins as it appeared in the early 1900s. INLT 02-802-CON
The tubular bridge at the Gobbins as it appeared in the early 1900s. INLT 02-802-CON

LARNE councillors have been urged to maintain secrecy ahead of a planned 2014 target date for the first visitors to set foot on the restored cliff path at the Gobbins.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is primed to make the Islandmagee project a flagship marketing tool and council chief executive Geraldine McGahey is determined that the £6 million scheme should not be jeopardised by loose talk.

Larne Borough Council is tantalisingly close to realising the dream of re-establishing the Gobbins as one of Northern Ireland’s premier tourist destinations. Design teams have been invited to submit tenders ahead of a proposed start this October, which will enable people to walk on the cliff face for the first time since Edwardian Berkeley Deane Wise’s magnificent walkway fell into disrepair after the Second World War.

The National Trust, which owns land in the area, has indicated its support: Tourism Ireland looks like getting on board; and the Special EU Programmes Body which is funding the development has given an indication that its £3.5 million is guaranteed, even if construction work is affected by inclement weather. Work cannot be carried out in spring and summer because of the presence of nesting sea birds and much of the engineering works will be manufactured off-site and transported to the cliff face by barge.

With everything apparently set fair for the Gobbins, Mrs McGahey has urged upon elected members the absolute requirement for confidentiality. Minutes published this week reveal that in mid-February she indicated that an area of land known as Wise’s Eye was still key to the project. She also confirmed that right of way had been asserted but was being objected to, adding that the matter was with the courts.

On March 5, Council resolved that “subject to clarification on legal costs and rewording of some of the conditions, Council move forward with the heads of agreement for the purchase of land, with further information to be presented to the policy and resources committee meeting the following week”.

Seven days later, the chief executive was authorised to “move forward on the quickest possible solution to progress the Gobbins project”.

On March 26, Mrs McGahey reported that she had raised objection to some of the conditions of sale, adding that she had received correspondence that morning “raising concerns about confidentiality”

The minutes record that the chief officer “reiterated the need for confidentiality of discussions within the council chamber under Legal and Confidential Matters. The vendor had indicated acceptance of the revised conditions and once these had been amended on the contract document she sought approval to sign the contract for the agreement to sale on Council’s behalf.”

The two-phase Gobbins scheme is to include rebuilding of the cliff face walk, complete with metal bridges, along with work on the cliff-top path (which will be free to use), a visitor centre, cafe and a children’s playground. Visitors.

There will be guided tours on the cliff face walk. Numbers will be limited and visitors will have to wear safety equipment.

Mrs McGahey revealed that NITB is very keen to be involved and sees the Gobbins as Northern Ireland’s headline project in 2014, in the wake of this year’s Titanic Quarter centenary events and Londonderry City of Culture in 2013.

Alderman Roy Beggs said the council could not wait until 2014 to begin marketing and heard from Mrs McGahey that it will get under way this year, aimed at the US, cruise ships and short-breaks markets. Promotion has already received a massive boost: after the Gobbins was highlighted in Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys series recently, Mrs McGahey - who was interviewed on the programme - indicated that there had been several expressions of interest in making a documentary on the reconstruction scheme.

Originally constructed in 1902, the Gobbins Cliff Path was opened to the public by the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company as a commercial venture to attract passengers to use their rail link between Belfast and Whitehead. At its peak, it drew more visitors than the famous Giant’s Causeway. However, the path fell into disrepair and was eventually closed in 1954.

The restoration plans include the creation of a visitor/community building in Islandmagee to accommodate the 70,000 paying customers expected at the Gobbins in the first year. Fully-guided experience tours’ will interpret the history and heritage of the site, its flora and fauna and its geological features.

Larne Council has allocated £2 million to the scheme, and a further £200,000 of funding has come from Ulster Garden Villages Ltd. The initiative also aims to develop links between the Gobbins and Sliabh Liag in Donegal, an area which features the highest sea cliffs in Europe.