TUV brand 800 jobs to Ballykelly decision ‘absurd’

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TUV leader Jim Allister has branded the Agriculture Minister’s decision to bring 800 government jobs to Ballykelly as “absurd”, during questioning at Stormont.

Sinn Féin Minister Michelle O’Neill made the decision to move her Departmental headquarters from Dundonald House in Belfast to the site of the former Shackleton army barracks in Ballykelly.

Speaking to the Sentinel recently, the Minister said the move was “about a fair distribution of public sector jobs across the North.” She added that despite potential legal issues raised by a public sector workers union, she fully expects the Department to be on site by 2015.

The Mid-Ulster MLA said: “I think it is brilliant that we are bringing jobs into the North West so it is a win for the North West but it is also the first Department – Sinn Féin will be the first Ministry to take a whole Department out of the Greater Belfast area and locate to a rural area.”

TUV MLA Jim Allister has branded the decision-making process “absurd”. Michelle O’Neill, however, defended the decision, saying: “Whether you like it or not, the reality is that the north-west was the area that was identified.”

During an interview with the Sentinel, Ms O’Neill explained why she took the decision to move the Department of Agriculture and Regional Development (DARD) headquarters to Ballykelly: “Well I suppose the whole move started because the current headquarters is beyond its useful life, it has done its day, it is done.

“I think that provided a good opportunity for Michelle Gildernew, my predecessor, to start the process of looking towards a rural location. All the jobs, as you know, are centralised in the Greater Belfast area so this was a great opportunity to go out into the area. We looked at a number of criteria around deprivation, unemployment and maybe eight or nine criteria that were used and it threw up the North West as an area. Then, this site, because it was Executive owned was a big plus obviously so we decided that this was an ideal site.”

Jim Allister, however, has been questioning Ms O’Neill in recent months around the decision making process leading up to Ms O’Neill’s announcement. This week, at Stormont, he continued to question the move: “If I understand this correctly — the Minister can correct me if I am wrong — the decision was taken on foot of a ministerial direction, because it was not compatible with Civil Service advice to appraise all options. Ballykelly was not chosen on its competing merits, for the shortlisting did not consider specific sites but council areas. It was only after Ballykelly was chosen that she moved to a business case to try to sustain that decision. Is that the absurd way in which the decision was made?”

Ms O’Neill replied: “There is nothing absurd about it. A direction is necessary in a case in which you want to avoid delay and reduce uncertainty. Standard procedure is to appraise all options fully, even those that do not meet the Executive’s identified policy to move the headquarters to a rural location by 2015, as set out in the Programme for Government. That would be complex, cumbersome and, in the final analysis, wasteful of resources. The decision was taken on the basis of the very objective criteria that I outlined, which are open and accessible for anyone to explore further. I encourage the Member to do that.

“The regional development strategy identified 23 locations, and then further objective criteria were applied. Whether you like it or not, the reality is that the north-west was the area that was identified. The top two areas were identified as a result of all the objective criteria being applied. As a result, the Ballykelly site, because of the obvious advantages that I have outlined, including it being an Executive-owned site, was a natural option to take.”