No decision yet on Slieve Gullion admission charge: Council

March 21, 2016

Newry, Mourne and Down District Council has confirmed that admission charges to Slieve Gullion Forest Park will not be introduced ahead of this weekend’s Easter holiday period.

There has been widespread public opposition to speculation that visitors to the popular tourist attraction would be charged a £5.00 admission fee to access the Slieve Gullion Courtyard, which features children’s favourite, The Giant’s Lair trail, and the facility’s award-winning play area.

It had been suggested that the charges would commence this week ahead of the Easter break, which traditionally sees an influx of visitors to the site.

Revealing that the introduction of a proposed admission charge is currently under consideration, a Council spokesperson confirmed to The Examiner that a final decision would not be reached ahead of the Easter holidays.

The Council says the admission charge is necessary to help fund investment in the park and maintain its facilities and will only be charged in high season with free entry continuing “during the winter period and midweek outside the Easter and summer season”.

Nevertheless, the move, together with the Council’s plan to permit hot food and ice cream vendors to operate in the park, has impacted on the decision of the Courtyard’s café owner to terminate his managing of the park’s on-site restaurant.

Graeme Finegan of Grounded said unfavourable lease renewal negotiations, along with the proposed £5.00 admission charge and the presence of “unlicensed food vendors” are behind his decision to pull out.

The lease of the café premises is overseen by the Clanrye Group, which is also based in Slieve Gullion Courtyard.

When contacted by The Examiner, Mr Finegan said he did not “point the blame at any one party involved” in the running of the facility on his reluctant decision to leave, but admitted he and his team are “distraught at leaving our home in Slieve Gullion”.

Taking a swipe at the Councl’s plan for admission charges and mobile food vendors, he said: “If the outrage at proposed charges and the presence of fast food traders in a place which was intended to create more active and healthy families makes the authorities even backtrack a little on their proposals, it will be a win for the community at large.”

On the subject of outside food operators, the Council spokesperson said: “To meet visitor demand and provide the visitor with choice, the Council have appointed two mobile vendors, one hot food and one ice-cream. This will provide the visitor with the choice of visiting the cafe, using the picnic facilities or the mobile vendor.”

The Council also confirmed it did not have a contractual arrangement with Grounded for the café provision in Slieve Gullion, which, it said “ is a private arrangement with Clanrye Developments, and Council can therefore not comment on this matter”.

Meanwhile, the Courtyard café is to reopen this Thursday under the management of Synge and Byrne, the south Armagh coffee brand owned by Silverbridge brothers Damien and Adrian Garvey, directors of the BWL group.

On the subject of admission charges, the Council endeavoured to justify the move, saying such fees are necessary to maintain the current high standard of the facility.

Public opinion on the proposals, however, has been vociferous with many taking to social media to vent their opposition. One user accused the Council of being “shortsighted” in its decision to introduce an admission fee, while others slammed the proposed development without proper public consultation.

Responding, the Council spokesperson said: “Slieve Gullion Forest Park is an excellent resource for both the local community and an increasing number of visitors. The Park has received substantial investment in recent years, which is a major factor on the huge numbers who choose to visit.

“To provide a facility to this high standard requires substantial annual investment by the Council in staffing, litter control, parking and toilet facilities. In addition further investment is required to provide enhanced parking and additional toilet facilities, which is some of the future capital investment planned. To help fund investment in the Park and ensure the facilities at Slieve Gullion are maintained to a high standard, the Council is considering the introduction of a charge into the car park.

Traffic congestion at Slieve Gullion Forest Park last Easter.

“It is anticipated free entry to the Park will continue during the winter period and midweek outside the Easter and summer season. No date has been agreed to commence charging and advance notification of this will be provided once agreed.

“In addition a season ticket will be available which will be particularly beneficial to regular visitors to the Park. It is anticipated free entry to the Park will continue during the winter period and midweek outside the Easter and summer season.”

This news has done little to quell public concern over the charge with some individuals pointing out that the charge will affect everyone, even those who live near the mountain as they need to drive to the Slieve Gullion car park due to the dangers of walking on the Forkhill Road.

Another has called for local councillors and MLAs to question the Council’s motives for a charge, suggesting that “because the Council has woken up to our mountain’s commercial potential, we are now expected to pay for the privilege of taking our children to the very same mountain”.

The issue of parking at the tourist hotspot reached crisis levels during last year’s Easter holiday period when it became a “victim of its own success” as record numbers of visitors  flocked to the area, creating traffic tailbacks stretching several miles, with the volume of cars effectively blocking the main Newry to Forkhill road.  The situation led to the Council introducing a Park and Ride facility in July last year to help minimize the impact of high visitor numbers on residents living close to Slieve Gullion.

The service drew mixed reactions from the public with some branding it impractical for families and others believing that it did not adequately address the parking problem.  The Council admitted it was a temporary measure and that it was working on a permanent solution.  It seems its latest commitment to a parking charge during the peak season as a way of tackling parking issues is also proving to be controversial, despite the presence of admission charges at a number of forest parks and recreational spots throughout the area, including Tollymore Forest, Gosford and Castlewellan.

The controversy surrounding Slieve Gullion and its activities was also compounded by a social media post which appeared on the Giant’s Lair Facebook page advising visitors that “Newry, Mourne and Down District Council have made a decision to not permit any events, activities or story tours at the Giant’s Lair over the Easter and Spring term”.

The innovative ‘living storybook’ project, led by Newry-based Sticky Fingers Arts, features fairy houses and art features dotted along a mile-long woodland path through the forest.

The Giant’s Lair team followed up the initial post with another which claimed that since a Council meeting which took place last June, the group has been attempting to resolve issues between them and have now been told by the local authority that “they [Council] now own Giant’s Lair and ordered Sticky Fingers to hand over the keys and leave”.

The post continues: “[Council] also stated that they had made a decision to stop all activities and events.  All of this is documented.  Slieve Gullion Councillors were aware that this happened and did not take any action.”

In response to The Examiner’s enquiry into this issue, a Council spokesperson said: “The Service Level agreement between Sticky Fingers Arts and Newry and Mourne District Council sets out the roles and responsibilities of each party to ‘regulate the running of the Giant’s Lair Project at Slieve Gullion Forest and associated activities and maintenance of artwork, play pieces and interpretation panels.’

“The agreement is silent on the matter of formal programmes, which confirms it was not the intention of the parties that Sticky Fingers Arts would organise formal programmes around the project.

“Furthermore the Licence Agreement Council has with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in respect of permission to use the lands at Slieve Gullion for the Giant’s Lair project, does not include permission to use the lands for events for which an entry fee would be charged.

“Any intention of Sticky Fingers Arts to organise formal programmes in Slieve Gullion would be subject to the approval of the Department and Council, which would require an agreement in respect of revenue sharing to demonstrate best value is being obtained by the Department and Council, particularly as the Council has committed significant funds towards the project and the maintenance of same over the next ten years.

There will be a full programme of Council run events in the Park over Easter.”

The Sticky Fingers Art Group had not responded to The Examiner’s request for clarification on their claims ahead of printing deadline.