Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s Planning Committee have turned down permission for a glamping pods tourism facility by a majority in a decision which appears to have been split down party lines although the exact breakdown of voting is currently unknown.

The proposed scheme consisted of around 10 glamping pods, the erection of ancillary buildings to include reception, exhibition space, restaurant/dining area, accessible toilets/changing area and associated site works.

The application by Manor Resorts Limited sought to develop lands to the west and southwest of Derrynacrannog Road in Belleek adjacent to Keenaghan Lough.

Amongst multiple concerns, the committee heard the site for the new buildings does not cluster, consolidate and group with existing established buildings and there are several important heritage assets nearby which are also tourist assets.

The proposed development was held to have an adverse impact on the intrinsic character or quality of these tourism assets namely, the nearby scheduled monument and two listed buildings in turn, diminishing their tourism value.

It would also adversely affect archaeological remains of regional importance at Keenaghan Abbey or the integrity of their settings and there were no exceptional circumstances to permit the development nor is it of overriding importance in Northern Ireland.

Of particular concern was the graveyard on the lands near the abbey ruins, going back to the 6th Century.

The Planning Committee heard the proposal would also have affected two nearby listed buildings and their settings and it had not been demonstrated the essential character, special architectural and/or historical interest, integrity and setting of the listed building would be protected, conserved and enhanced.

In a detailed report compiled by the Director of Regeneration and Planning, the recommendation was for refusal.

The landowner Robert Johnston told the committee he and his family have farmed the land in Belleek for generations.

He said: “Farming is going through a very difficult financial time. I believe in our shared heritage, in maintaining the graveyard where one of my own relatives is buried. I want to open the graveyard, not just for locals but anyone visiting Belleek. It’s a shared future, I perceive. I want to create a hospitality business to be proud of.

"In our business plan, we are creating 26 jobs earning between £25,000 - £60,000. They are not low-paid nor low-skilled jobs. There is a huge wave of our youth leaving Belleek as there simply aren’t the jobs. If I can help reverse this in some small way, I would be very proud.”

Mr. Johnston continued: “The protection of the graveyard is paramount to me. I genuinely believe I can make this a respectable place for those who are buried and their families to visit. The local parish priest has endorsed my vision and is willing to work with me. It is all our past so why not make it part of our future?”

In response to an enquiry, Mr. Johnston said at present parking is on a by-road and: “There’s really no public access to the graveyard and the problem is there’s no insurance as it currently stands. Prior to 2018, the council were (maintaining) but once they found out that I owned the graveyard it was basically, what are we doing here? Where’s the insurance? There is none. My farm insurance doesn’t cover the public crossing my fields. There has to be special insurance. I think there was discussions the council would help towards that in the future. But there’s no pathways. Everything is closed at the moment and the council have not told me yet if they are funding the insurance.”

Planning consultant John Corry said: “This is a glamping proposal. There are scores of glamping sites around the country and there is a shown need for them. They do need a reception and landing space and the building for that would be as close to the glamping pods as we could make it, by virtue of it being almost invisible within the environment. It’s an established fishing resort with lough and jetties.”

Speaking against however, Brendan Jones of the local historical society understood the council’s development plans see tourism as a major economic driver and: “Generally supports these objectives but would consider the economic benefits of the current tourist proposal would not outweigh the harm to interest of acknowledged importance around the site and surrounding area. Whilst Fermanagh and particularly the lakes provide a wide range of tourism facilities, the economic benefits of each project must be weighed against safeguarding historic ecological and architectural integrity.”

He pointed out that the area around Keenaghan Lough was designated as a “sensitive zone” including assets of regional importance such as the ruins of Keenaghan Church and graveyard on the eastern shore of the lough, linked to the 6th Century abbey and monastic settlement.

“They are considered scheduled monuments,” Mr. Jones said. “The early Christian Keenaghan crannog on the western shore is also a scheduled monument. Two thatched cottages built around the 18th Century both have Grade B1 listed status and considered of special architectural and historic interest “

He also referenced two protected Areas of Special Scientific Interest and pointed out that over the years the areas have: “Largely resisted development pressure and a considerable quantity of the local landscape has been maintained. This tranquil area of countryside is passive recreational to resource and a considerable tourist asset in its own right.”

Taking account of all he said: “We contend the council’s reasons for refusal are well-founded.”

Also speaking against, Lisa McWilliams who owns one of the thatched properties Keenahan Cottage, started by stating she: "100 per cent supports tourism and development, but this (application) takes away the very essence of what is important to tourism in Fermanagh. Not all development is progress. This is quite simply the wrong place.”

She said: “To me and many others the most important issue is the graveyard and the people buried within this space. It is a spiritual and sacred place. Surely we must show respect to our dead and the right to rest in peace. This is one of the oldest and most sacred graveyards, with a longstanding public right-of-way. These sites are much larger than we see today and not everyone could afford to mark the spot within the walls. To excavate anywhere in this field would not only put built heritage at risk it would be sacrilegious. Remember, this was a mixed community graveyard where everyone was laid to rest together, side-by-side as it should be.”

Ms. McWilliams added: “The planners and local people have spoken. Thousands of people from all over the world have signed a petition. This all comes down to respect, most importantly to the men women and children resting in this very field. This is no place for a holiday park, no place for a restaurant and certainly no place for a bar. Let us show the eyes of the world we respect both the living and the dead.”

Two elected members also spoke on the application with Councillor Roy Crawford, Ulster Unionist in favour and Councillor Barry McElduff, Sinn Féin against.

On conclusion, Councillor Stephen McCann, Sinn Féin proposed the recommendation to refuse the application which was seconded by party colleague, Councillor Anthony Feely.

The matter went to a vote which passed but the breakdown of votes for and against is currently unknown.