THERE was criticism of Environment minister, Alex Atwood, when he failed to appear at a public meeting last Wednesday night in Ballycastle.
Hundreds of residents (500 or so) had to be housed in separate accommodation in Sheskburn where opposition was expressed to a National Park being created on the North Antrim coast.
Pointedly, the organisers left Mr. Atwood’s name display on a desk to indicate his absence, but he had said he was unable to attend due to “another important engagement.”
Mr. Atwood who is keen to introduce two national parks to Northern Ireland, was jokingly referred to at the meeting as “the invisible man.”
The meeting was told that Mr. Atwood had only indicated three days earlier that he was unable to attend prompting local farmer, Victor Chestnutt to comment that they could “manage without him.”
North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley jnr and TUV leader Jim Allister were amongst the crowd mainly made up of farmers and local residents.
The theme of the meeting was ‘Say No to a National Park’.
Among those in attendance was a delegation from Brecon Becons National Park in Wales which was designated National Park status in 1957.
One of those was John Thorley.
He told how he had a close affinity with north Antrim having visited the area regularly as a child.
“When I heard of the proposals to set up National Parks in Northern Ireland I felt almost a duty to let you know of the experiences of those who live under their questionable control.”
He blasted National Parks as “unnecessary, expensive and dictatorial”.
He said it was imperative the “glorious” Causeway Coast and Glens rejected the National Park proposal.
Mr Attwood received a hostile reception at a meeting in Cookstown regarding National Parks in the summer and did not attend a similar engagement in Newcastle at which 1,000 people voiced their opposition to such a park being established in the Mournes.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Moyle Independent councillor Padraig McShane, who helped organise the event, said it had been arranged to cater for the minister’s diary.
“The minister himself had approved the contents of the agenda little over a week ago,” said Mr McShane.
“I do not wish to suggest the minister is running scared but we attempt to deal in facts here.
“The minister got a poor response from the first public meeting in Cookstown and followed that up with a no-show in Newcastle.
“The Causeway Coast and Glens Group invited the minister months ago affording him the opportunity to be informed at all times. I can no longer define what enough notice means.”
Opponents of Mr Attwood’s attempts to introduce two National Parks to Northern Ireland have highlighted concerns over increased rates, diminished control of property and business, and greater planning restrictions.
A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment of which Mr Attwood is minister said:
“The minister has another important engagement in Belfast for a couple of hours on Wednesday night.
“It was made clear to the union that the minister’s diary, by its very nature, can change and that those who organise meetings do so ‘at risk’.
“The minister has told the union he will be delighted to have a future meeting and hopes that this can be organised. He wishes the union a good meeting and an informed debate on the issue.”
Earlier last week Mr Attwood was accused of failing to show leadership over the National Park issue.
Alliance environment spokeswoman Anna Lo said it is now time for a campaign group to be set up to help deliver a National Park, saying the minister had “given up”.
She said she is writing to a number of groups to determine who would be interested in kick-starting a campaign in support of a National Park.
Last month Mr Attwood said he will not impose a National Park in County Down’s Mourne Mountains after more than 1,000 Newcastle residents living around the Mournes told the minister they opposed his plans at a public meeting weeks previously.
He said “the voice of opposition in the Mournes is greater than the voice of support”.
He said he was continuing to take stock on the full range of views but “a national park cannot be imposed and as things are - there won’t be one in the Mournes”.
In Cookstown in August, the Ulster Farmers’ Union told Mr Attwood in a meeting he described as “boisterous” that they feared extra land restrictions in the plan for protected countryside.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a national park.
It is an area of protected countryside administered by its own independent government-funded body to look after its conservation and promote its benefits.
The minister has previously indicated he wants two to be created, with the Mournes, the Causeway coast, the Antrim Glens and Fermanagh Lakelands identified as possible areas.
There are 15 national parks in Great Britain and six in the Republic of Ireland.
More than 1,000 people attended a public meeting in September in Newcastle, County Down, where farmers and local residents voiced their opposition to the Mournes being designated a national park.