SEVERAL local farmers were among a 600-strong attendance at a meeting called by the Ulster Farmers’ Union to express opposition to a proposed national park in the Antrim coast and Glens area.
Farmers were joined by residents and businesses at the event in the Sheskburn Hall, Ballycastle, where UFU president Harry Sinclair said: “Farmers and the wider community in the Antrim Coast and Glens area who attended our meeting have overwhelmingly expressed their outright opposition to a national park in their locality.
“Once again, a very clear message has been sent to the Environment Minister Alex Attwood that farmers and others do not want and will not support a national park in their area.”
Mr Sinclair added that recently the minister scrapped plans for a national park in the Mournes due to the level of opposition.
“And we are in no doubt that the same depth of opposition is present in the other areas of Northern Ireland earmarked in the National Park proposals,” he declared.
“This has been demonstrated clearly with this meeting in north Antrim. Farmers’ genuine concerns about issues such as additional bureaucracy, additional restrictions, governance, access, liability, and the impact on the social structure of their areas were once again outlined by speaker after speaker.”
The meeting passed a resolution which calls for “the immediate abolition of the proposal to designate any part of the Causeway Coast and Glens as a national park”.
East Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan, who attended the meeting, claimed Minister Attwood “treated the people of the Glens with contempt” after he failed to turn up at the meeting.
He added: “I listened to the minister this morning on the radio where he gave a plethora of excuses as to why the national park should go ahead, despite the overwhelming opposition shown to the creation of a national park in the Glens.
“This is in total contrast to the attitude he took in south Down where he announced he would not proceed with a national park due to local opposition.”
Mr McMullan accused Mr Attwood of “trying to turn the rural countryside into a playground for suburbia” and offered to meet with anyone who is concerned about the national park plan.
“The case for a national park has never been proven. The countryside is already very well protected by the likes of Areas of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The stakeholders, including farmers and the hospitality industry, believe that there is no need at all for anything more,” he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs Jnr, who spoke at Ballycastle, warned: “There have been suggestions that the proposed national park designation could cover an area as far south as Cairncastle.”
He added: “This was a very well attended meeting, at which great concern was expressed at the potential negative implications of a national park designation being imposed on the Glens of Antrim.
“I was particularly struck by the first-hand experiences of some Welsh visitors who live in a national nark in the Brecon Beacons. The sort of petty bureaucracy they have to live with does not inspire confidence. Indeed, rather than enhance the local economy, a national park management regime would be more likely to impede it.
“I highlighted at the meeting that there are alternative ways for government to boost tourism whilst protecting the environment in the Antrim Coast and Glens. Rather than pay for yet another government Quango which would further restrict local businesses, any resources available should be used to upgrade facilities for visitors.
“More resources could be put in to improving countryside access, developing the Ulster Way and Forest Service opportunities, and by upgrading tourist facilities in this area of outstanding natural beauty. I am not convinced that creating some sort of national park in the Antrim Coast and Glens would do anything except create a bureaucratic structure which would actually stifle tourism and the local economy.”
Mr Beggs pointed out: “The extent of the Causeway Coast and Glens National Park proposal is not clear. Cairncastle has even been mentioned by some. The whole thing is half-baked and ill-thought-out. What is clear from other regions, is that the existing rural economy has been adversely affected and unreasonable additional restrictions have been imposed as their Quangos aspire to international standards. We have a very vulnerable local economy at present and we must not create bodies that could further endanger the potential of rural businesses and jobs.”