UPPER Bann MLA Samuel Gardiner will rub shoulders with Irish president Michael D Higgins next week – in the expansive estate once owned by a firebrand unionist politician of the 19th and early 20th century vehemently opposed to Irish Home Rule.
Colonel James Saunderson, who was MP for Cavan and later North Armagh at the turn of the 19th century, is famous for his stirring parliamentary speech: “Home Rule may pass this House (Westminster) but it will never pass the Bann Bridge at Portadown.”
More than 100 years later, his words are engraved on an obelisk raised a month ago in front of the Colonel’s statue in the centre of Portadown to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant.
And next Saturday, August 18, Mr Gardiner is off to the 300-acre former Saunderson estate – the old power base of the Saundersons in Co Cavan – as a guest of honour at the opening of an International Scout Centre.
The 30-acre development covers part of the fomer Saunderson estate – it is called Castlesaunderson International Scout Centre – including a permanent jamboree site, capable of accommodating 1,000 people, and is on the border area between Cavan, Fermanagh and Monaghan.
It is one of five global sites, the others being in Sweden, the Philippines, Switzerland and Panama.
Mr Gardiner said: “It’s a delight to be involved in the revitalisation of the Saunderson estate.
“The Scouting facility is a wonderful one and it is an honour to be invited to the opening.
“I became involved in the project three or four years ago when historian William Wortley invited me to view the Colonel’s grave and church which were rather neglected, and we succeeded in having a restoration project initiated.
“The shell of the magnificent Saunderson Castle still dominates much of the estate, and the walls are still standing and sturdy, but it would take millions to restore it.
“The Scout project – which will be open to many youth organisations – is very pleasing. The Colonel’s old constituency of North Armagh covers much of the Upper Bann area for which I am responsible.”
The Castlesaunderson Project is one of a small number of flagship projects thanks to 3,450,000 euro of support from the European Union’s Peace III managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).
Cavan County Council and Scouting Ireland (SAI) are the lead partners in the project with the support of the Scouting Association of Northern Ireland (SANI).
The purpose of the funding stream is to create shared public spaces and reduce any underlying problems of sectarianism and segregation throughout Northern Ireland and the six border counties.
The project was halted in 2011 due to the main contractor going into receivership. Following negotiations, work recommenced in January and has been completed in time for next Saturday’s opening ceremony.