Row between councillors and Catholic church over Newcastle land deal

Newcastle Central Promenade, towards the Mourne mountains.
Newcastle Central Promenade, towards the Mourne mountains.

A row has broken out between the Catholic Church and Down District Council over allegations of “bad faith” surrounding a land deal.

According to a cross-party group of councillors, the Church has reneged on a promise to sell the site of a former primary school in Newcastle to the council.

The land at the centre of the row is the St Mary’s site which the council had hoped to develop as a leisure centre.

They have accused the Church of continuing to solicit bids “even while contracts were being drawn up”, and believe they have now been out-bid.

In a statement the councillors said: “We are shocked and feel betrayed as a result of the Church’s dishonourable behaviour in this matter, as we see it.

“When the former St Mary’s Primary School site was placed on the open market by its custodians, the Parish of Maghera, the highest bidder at close of bids on 24th September 2013 was Down District Council.

“In 1963 this 3.2 acre site was sold to the parish for £300 by the Annesley estate, on the implicit understanding that the land would be used for the good of the community. The council’s plan, to provide a leisure centre and health clinic on the site, honours and upholds this philanthropic principle.”

The statement – signed by councillors Stephen Burns, Laura Devlin, Patrick Clarke, Carmel O’Boyle, Willie Clarke and Desmond Patterson – goes on to say: “Who is now the Church’s preferred bidder, and what does this bidder propose to do with the site? Why, at the eleventh hour, and on the very day that the deal was to have been completed, did the Diocese of Down and Connor decide to dash the hopes and expectations of the people of Newcastle?”

South Down MLA Sean Rogers has also said he is “disappointed at how the matter has unfolded”.

The SDLP representative said: “Following protracted negotiations, the parish of Maghera agreed to sell this site to the council. It is my understanding that council has invested heavily in moving the project forward so for the Church to make a U-turn at this late stage is very worrying.

“In light of this new information, I have written to the bishop seeking his urgent intervention as the hostility within the local community towards the Church at the moment is palpable.

“I am curious to know, who is the new bidder and what is their intention for this site?”

Last night the Catholic Church said it “will be considering the details of this statement and responding in due course”.