Northern Ireland

Council officials accused of 'troubling precedent' over controversial Slieve Donard gondola project

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

An Alliance MLA has accused Newry, Mourne and Down Council officials of setting a "troubling precedent" by urging councillors to support the controversial Slieve Donard gondola project.

South Down Stormont representative Patrick Brown claims it is the first time council officers have made formal recommendations that are in direct opposition to a councillor’s motion.

The council's strategic policy and resource (SPR) committee is due to vote for the first time on the so-called Mourne Gateway project on Thursday. 

The project would see a cable car run from Newcastle to a disused quarry on the slopes of Ulster's highest peak. The cost of the venture was estimated four years ago at £44m – around two-thirds of which is funded through the Belfast City Deal. It is supported by a majority of parties on the council.

According to Mr Brown, an opponent of the gondola, council officials have urged elected members to reject a motion from Alliance councillor Andrew McMurray.

Mr McMurray's motion called on the council to pause all work on the Mourne Gateway project until a full public consultation is completed and alternatives to the gondola considered. 

"The way in which this motion has been presented to elected members sets a troubling precedent – never before have council officers made formal recommendations that are in fact a direct negative of a councillor’s motion," Mr Brown told The Irish News. 

"Our motion was proposed and seconded at full council in April, and then deferred to committee for debate and decision but council officers have taken it upon themselves to lobby councillors to adopt a series of recommendations which are the exact opposite of what our motion sets out to do – namely to continue full steam ahead with the gondola project."

Mr Brown said it was councillors' role to "debate, scrutinise and amend motions". 

"This sort of heavy-handed agenda-setting by officers suggests they do not want our elected representatives thinking for themselves or daring to challenge their pre-ordained decisions," he said.

The Alliance MLA also raised questions about the projected cost of the gondola, saying the £44m figures was "based on 2019 estimates, which are pre-pandemic and pre-inflation". 

"It is highly likely that the actual cost of the gondola will be much greater than this, and as the Belfast City Deal contribution is a fixed amount, ratepayers will be left to foot the bill for any additional capital build cost," he said.

Newry, Mourne and Down Council said approval of a business case had already been given and "comprehensive stakeholder engagement" had also taken place.