Issues of Trust -HEAD

Thursday, 23 August 2018

A CROWD of North Antrim locals have left a meeting with the National Trust more suspicious than ever about the charity's commitment to free public access at the Giant's Causeway.
Top officials brought in to allay fears and dispel conspiracy theories struggled to provide the reassurance angry residents demanded in a Bushmills church hall last Thursday
The event was prompted by a council investigation into rights of way issues at the World Heritage site.
While free access between the visitor centre and the stones is beyond dispute, a survey is underway to accumulate evidence of long-term uninhibited use of paths to the east along the shoreline and back, along the cliff top.
If the evidence is there, Causeway Coast and Glens Council have the power to declare the route a public right of way unless landowners - of which the Trust is only one - challenge the decision.
That could mean the matter ends up in the County Court, residents heard on Thursday evening.
Clouding the issue and arousing suspicion of locals over the charity's intentions, has been the erection of signs informing visitors that they use trails only "with permission of the National Trust".
And local MLA Jim Allister is among those to suggest the Trust's real agenda may differ from its publicly stated commitments.
On Thursday the former barrister told residents rights of way can be established when it's proved access had been "asserted" by the public for 20 uninterrupted years
But, he added, the process could be reversed.
He pointed out that "receiving permission" to walk was not the same as "asserting a right".
“That is why the National Trust's signs have suddenly appeared," he said, "to create misinformation over 20 years of use by licence. And at the end of that, there will be no public right of way.
He continued: "The real question for the National Trust is this: This process that the council has engaged upon - asserting a right of way - requires landowners, of which the National Trust is one, to decide whether they agree or disagree with the assertion.
“That's what these people want to hear tonight. Is the National Trust agreeing with this assertion or are they going to try and thwart it and force it to go through the court?"
The question was met with a response that satisfied very few of the gathered locals.
“I think you are asking an unfair question in the middle of a Council investigation," said Jonny Clark, the Trust's assistant director of operations
“I'm not in a position to give an answer in the middle of this process, and I expect you knew that," he added.
Mr Clark's refusal to engage drew howls of derision, perhaps unfairly because earlier the Trust's North Coast manager had clearly stated his employers had no intention of removing access rights.
“That is not something that we are intending to do," said Max Bryant.
“We don't own all the pathways, that's the starting point. And there are permissive path agreements and various other things that are in place with landowners to enable access - access that we fully endorse and fully support, and we have no intention of looking to remove that in any way shape or form."
Mr Bryant's explanation for the signs centred on attempts to combat certain forms of anti-social behaviour that had increased in recent years like illegal camping, and lighting fires.
“What we are trying to do with those signs is to make sure they can't carry out that sort of activity.
“They are not intended to stop individuals accessing on foot.
Earlier Jonny Clark had also attempted to give more general assurances about the Trust's commitment to coastal access.
“One of our key priorities in Northern Ireland is coastal access," he said. "We currently care for 22 per cent of the coastline.
“What we would love is coastal access all the way around Northern Ireland in the same way as you can walk all the way around the coast of England and Wales.
“That currently doesn't happen in Northern Ireland and its something as a conservation charity we care deeply about."
Also at the meeting were councillors from all parties who attempted to try and clarify the history of the rights of way issue and the local authority's current position.
The audience heard how a group of local business men led by the Lecky family had formed a company to start charging visitors in the 1890s.
Public outcry prompted a High Court case in Dublin in 1897 which established a right of way as far as the stones, though the Leckys continued operating turnstiles at the Causeway until the 1960s.
Charging ended when the National Trust bought the site in 1962.
The charity now owns the stones themselves and shoreline skirting two bays either side plus most of the cliff-side above. It also owns a portion of land at the Dunseverick end of the cliff path, fields near the visitor centre and farmland spread over the Runkerry headland.
The rest is divided among farmers and the remnants of the Macnaghten estate.
That's why the issue is "complicated" as Max Bryant decrbed it, especially given farmers' tradition reluctance to concede anything that threatens their holdings.
It's the council's role to act as an 'honest broker' having voted to unanimously investigate the issue earlier this year.
It's elected members who will decide whether the evidence gathered over the summer warrants assertion of a right of way.
On Thursday, independent councillor Padraig McShane whose proposal led to the investigation, said he was confident the council would support the people.
“It's very important that all the paths belong to you the people - the local people who have walked them for centuries."


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