Plans to site a GAA centre of excellence at the Ballykinlar Army base could hamper the prospect of future job creation, Jim Wells has said.
The DUP MLA was responding to news that the sporting organisation had entered negotiations with the Ministry of Defence over a lease to facilitate the major development project.
The new complex – to cater for all Gaelic games codes – will be sited on the old Abercorn barracks site.
Since the resident Army battalion pulled out in 2014 the base and almost 200 houses have been lying empty, however, other parts of the camp are still used by both the police and Army as a training facility.
At the time of the Army withdrawal, the MOD said it was looking at a number of options, including demolition.
A spokesman said: “With the reduction in military footprint we are not using the barracks as a base and Defence Infrastructure Organisation will be looking at a range of options. Demolition has not actually started and remains one of a number of options being examined.“
Yesterday, Mr Wells described the news as “a surprising development,” and he would have preferred to see the secure establishment utilised in a way that could replace the 200 or so local jobs lost when the resident battalion relocated.
“The loss of the full-time battalion of The Rifles from Ballykinlar was a great blow to the community and employment in the area, because Ballykinlar was the second largest employer in Down district.
“I think the real long-term use for Ballykinlar would be for some form or military/security service.
“I always thought it would have been the excellent venue for the PSNI college, particularly with the huge problems that the Cookstown site at Desertcreat had.
“There had been a complete refurbishment of the property and the buildings six years before the announcement that it was being mothballed.
“I thought that was the long-term, sustainable future. This proposal will not lead to much in the way of employment opportunities in the area.”
In terms of the significance of the move – considering the site’s history – Mr Wells said: “I am surprised they’ve picked that location as it’s not only a former Army camp but also a former internment camp during the First World War, and some very prominent republicans were interned there because of the threat to national security.”
Ballykinlar GAA issued a statement on Thursday confirming the plan. The MOD has also confirmed that negotiations are in progress.
The GAA club said: “Ballykinlar has a vibrant GAA community and the local club facility had been a training base for Down senior teams for a number of years. If approved and progressed, the Ballykinlar project will form an important part of a new Vision 2020 strategy for the county.
“While a new complex will cater for the training and administrative needs of Down teams in all Gaelic games codes, it will also be a significant resource for the Ballykinlar club and the local communities.”