Pressure continues to build on Michelle O’Neill following her decision to relocate 800 public sector jobs from Belfast to Ballykelly. The County Derry village was chosen despite Strabane topping a table of preferred locations after a comprehensive study.
The Minister has consistently said that that Ballykelly was handed the lucrative employment windfall because of the availability of the Executive-owned Shackleton Barracks and the buildings on the site that could potentially be utilised.
Despite the explanation however, the controversial decision has continued to attract questions, none more so than why Ballykelly was chosen without costings and a proper business case first being drawn up.
Minister O’Neill came under pressure again last week when representatives from the DUP, UUP and the TUV quizzed the rationale behind the Ballykelly revelation. The Sinn Féin representative reiterated her reasons of the availability of the Shackleton site. She admitted however that a business case was now only being drawn up.
“Work is progressing on developing the business case, which will consider the viable options for relocating my Department’s headquarters to Ballykelly,” she told the Executive.
The UUP’s John McCallister accused the Minister of running ahead of her department and officials, who, he said, were now playing catch up. Mrs O’Neill refuted the allegation.
“I have not run ahead of the Department. It is my job to make decisions, and it also my job to make sure that everything is looked at and explored. Based on the Programme for Government commitment, I took the decision for Ballykelly,” she said.
TUV MLA Jim Allister said that if the decision was taken without a business case in place, it was “absurd”.
“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,” asked Mr Allister.
The Agriculture Minister said that her decision was taken using criteria that was both open and accessible for anyone to explore. She added that given the advantages she had outlined, Ballykelly was “a natural option to take”.
Strabane SDLP councillor Patsy Kelly said however that he remains unconvinced. He said the DARD Minister’s decision made “very little sense” and urged her to come clean.
Cllr Kelly said, “The Minister took the decision to relocate the DARD headquarters to Ballykelly without a business case, which makes very little sense in the first place, but she stated in the Assembly that the decision was taken based on a number of factors, including socio-economic factors, deprivation and unemployment levels.
“It does not take a Nobel-prize winning economist to see the high levels of deprivation and unemployment in Strabane as a result of decades of under-investment. Given that and the number of sites ripe for development in the town, a strong business case must surely exist for Strabane’s inclusions for the decentralisation of DARD.
“I raised this matter with the Minister in person very recently, but have been highly dissatisfied with any response received.
“It is time she faced her questioners and gave them the answers they need – Strabane deserves better than this,” he added.