THREE of Northern Ireland’s top tourist attractions have been identified as potential candidates for National Park status.
The Mournes, the Causeway Coast and Antrim Glens and the Fermanagh Lakelands have been selected from an initial list of 12 through an independent assessment process.
Announcing the new shortlist Environment Minister Alex Attwood said he planned to create two National Parks at the end of the process.
Mr Attwood said: “The built and natural heritage is a big part of the great quality of our lives and a big part of tourism and jobs in the future. Northern Ireland is the only part of these islands that does not have National Parks. It is time to grasp the opportunity.”
Among the areas considered for upgraded status but failing to make the final three were Belfast Hills, Lough Neagh, Ring of Gullion, Strangford Lough and Binevenagh.
As well as the prestigious National Park title, other benefits include job creation and guaranteed government investment in visitor facilities.
Lagan Valley, the Sperrins and the Clogher Valley have also missed out on selection after consideration.
The announcement is the result of a consultation process that began last autumn.
Mr Attwood said he believed the time was right to introduce the new Bill.
“I am circulating a paper to Executive colleagues recommending they endorse the principle of National Parks legislation. I hope to achieve this before the July holidays,” he said.
“While this is my shortlist, if an exceptional argument is made elsewhere I will still listen. At the same time, I will work to create a model of National Parks, different from elsewhere, suitable for Northern Ireland circumstances and I will work to reassure all that National Parks is an opportunity not a threat.”
The minister said he appreciated some people will have anxieties over the proposals but said he could give reassurances “that see the biggest buy-in possible” to National Parks.
He said: “I hope to see not one but two National Parks created in the first instance. This would advertise the scale and wonder of our heritage and create jobs in times of need. The ‘shortlist’ should excite interest and be a catalyst to move the argument on positively.”
The expert panel who advised on the areas considered most eligible for designation were: Dr Brendan Murtagh from the school of planning, architecture and civil engineering at Queen’s University; architect, conservationist and mountaineer Dawson Stelfox; chief executive of the Heritage Council Michael Starrett and Tim Birley, an expert in sustainable development and a former senior civil servant heading rural affairs and natural heritage divisions.
There will be a further period of public consultation before any areas will receive official designation.