Northern Ireland

OPINION: There are greater priorities for the Mournes than cable car scheme

The terminus of the proposed Mourne Gateway on Slieve Donard
The terminus of the proposed Mourne Gateway on Slieve Donard

SLIEVE Donard and the Mournes are public assets and should therefore be easily accessible to everybody.

Ulster's largest and highest mountain range is also under pressure from increased visitor numbers.

Right across the Mournes there's a need for investment in infrastructure to cope with growing footfall, and the cars that come with those feet.

Meanwhile, the mountains themselves are scarred in many places, the soft bogland struggling to withstand the impact of thousands of ramblers.

To anybody familiar with the range, the problems are clear, and no amount of designations, be it Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or UNESCO Global Geopark, will make a ounce of difference unless accompanied by considerable resources and appropriate expertise.

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'Unmissable opportunity' or a 'carbuncle' on the face of the Mournes? New images released of £44m Mourne Gateway ProjectOpens in new window ]

Yet these pressing issues are effectively being ignored in favour of what some may regard as a pie in the sky, vanity project, hatched by those who appear more concerned with drawing numbers to Newcastle, a town that already attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and as a result benefits disproportionately from council funds.

The expected 365,000 visitors annually to the so-called Mourne Gateway, appears to be an arbitrary figure, nevertheless it would place additional pressure on Newcastle's already-strained transport infrastructure.

Then there's the cost to ratepayers. Some £30m has been pledged by government under the Belfast City Deal but these funds are not inflation-linked and are therefore shrinking in real terms.

New images have been released of proposals for a £44m visitor centre in the Mourne Mountains.
New images have been released of proposals for a £44m visitor centre in the Mourne Mountains.

While the project is costed at £44m presently, there's a justifiable expectation that this sum will increase significantly, placing a further financial burden on hard-pressed households and businesses.

The environmental and visual impact of the proposed gondola is debatable. While the lower slopes of Donard were once biodiverse broadleaf forest, these days it's largely laurel and conifers – though that can be easily rectified over the course of a couple of generations.

The terminus building at Thomas's quarry, from where access to Slieve Donard will be restricted, promises to be inconspicuous but accommodating hundreds of visitors each day is bound to leave a noticeable footprint.

The arguments for the project are far from convincing, while those against – greater priorities, soaring costs, environmental impact on Slieve Donard and Newcastle, make a strong case for killing this white elephant.