The Minister behind plans to move hundreds of civil service jobs to Ballykelly has denied speculation the move could soon fall apart.
Local MLA George Robinson highlighted contrary speculation with the Minister, while another local MLA, John Dallat, said the Minister needs to give assurances that the move is for real.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill announced in November 2012 that she was to move her Department’s headquarters from Dundondald House in Belfast to the site of the former Shackleton army barracks in Ballykelly.
The move has been long awaited in the Limavady Borough, with calls from both local politicians and business representatives for more swift action to bring the jobs to the area.
Now, the Minister has been forced to step in to quash speculation the move might not go ahead at all. During an exchange with local MLAs at Stormont this week, Mrs O’Neill said: “I have a commitment to make sure that we decentralise, and I am absolutely committed to the headquarters move. I am not going to lead staff up the garden path.”
Local MLA George Robinson sought assurances from the Minister, asking: “Given the recent contrary speculation, will the Minister give the definitive timeline for the relocation of her departmental headquarters to Ballykelly?”
Michelle O’Neill replied: “The business case has been agreed. As you know, we set it out on a phased basis, and we are hopeful that we will have staff in place in 2017.”
She was further quizzed by another East Londonderry MLA, John Dallat, who asked the Minister to outline the progression that will lead to this swanky new headquarters and all the 800 jobs that she has promised.
“I do not want to be a doubting Thomas”, Mr Dallat said, “but the Minister really needs to put flesh on the bones and assure us that this is for real”.
Mrs O’Neill replied: “I can absolutely assure you that it is for real and that my commitment for decentralisation is for real. I know that the member has a particular interest in Ballykelly, but he can see that we are also moving very quickly to move fisheries to south Down, Forest Service to Fermanagh and Rivers Agency to Cookstown.
“That speaks for itself, in that I have a commitment to make sure that we decentralise, and I am absolutely committed to the headquarters move. We have a project management board in place. I am not going to lead staff up the garden path. We are making sure that they are fully consulted throughout the process, and they welcome that. “This is about a fair distribution of public sector jobs, fair and balanced growth and us being able to stimulate the economy in the north-west with the construction and the ongoing maintenance of the building. The benefits far outweigh any negatives, and I am absolutely committed.
“The benefits of the stimulation of the local economy through job creation and the construction and ongoing maintenance of the building speak for themselves. We want to see this happen.”