Stormont ministers have been warned that because of their inaction Northern Ireland is set to lose one of the most significant ships in naval history.
The Portsmouth-based National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), which owns the historic HMS Caroline, has issued an ultimatum to the Northern Ireland Executive — “if you don’t want Caroline, we will take her back to England”.
In an open letter, Professor Dominic Tweddle — director general of the NMRN — claimed the lack of commitment, leadership and focus in the Assembly could see the vessel being taken from Belfast.
“For three years the NMRN has been engaging with Northern Ireland authorities to broker a solution for Caroline which keeps her in Belfast,” said Prof Tweddle.
“While there have been expressions of enthusiasm, there has been little action.
“The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has written to NMRN to tell us that unless there is a solution which they can put to ministers by July 31 this year, then they will begin the disposal process.
“The NMRN has therefore concluded that we must act to save the ship. We cannot allow the last survivor of the Grand Fleet and the last survivor of Jutland — the greatest ‘big gun’ naval battle of all time — to perish ignominiously.”
HMS Caroline is the sole survivor from the fleet that fought in the 1916 Battle of Jutland and has been moored in Belfast for 80 years.
Over recent years the warship has fallen into disrepair, and estimates suggest it could cost £5m to bring her up to standard, with a further £250k-a-year to maintain it. It is hoped the ship could generate revenue through ticket sales and hosting corporate events.
However, the NMRN has now declared it is preparing to bring the vessel back to its dockyard in Portsmouth where it will be preserved and opened to the public in time for the 100th anniversary of the First World War — if the Executive does not step up to the mark.
Copies of Prof Tweddle’s letter have been sent to all Stormont ministers including Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. However, it is understood that the final decision lies with Tourism Minister Arlene Foster.
Mrs Foster said she was now seeking an “urgent meeting” with the MoD to discuss the future of the ship.
“I cannot understand the content of the letter or its tone as Deti has been in correspondence with the NMRN over recent months,” she said.
“HMS Caroline has been berthed in Belfast since 1924. The ship is now part of our maritime heritage and I therefore believe that the ship should stay in Belfast and be restored.
“I am dismayed that the MoD is seeking to dispose of the ship. Because of the tourism potential, we have been trying to work with them to find a solution.
“It would cost a considerable amount of money to take the ship to Portsmouth and perhaps this would be better spent on preserving her here. I am seeking an urgent meeting with the MoD with the view to finding the best solution to HMS Caroline’s long-term future.”
HMS Caroline was built in 1914 and was one of the fastest warships of its time. It is the last survivor of the Grand Fleet that fought in the 1916 Battle of Jutland. It came to Belfast in 1924 and acted as a floating administrative base during the Second World War. It later became a headquarters and training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves in Northern Ireland but was formally decommissioned by the MoD when the Reserves moved to Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn in March 2011.
Turn it into floating museum, urges veteran
Retaining HMS Caroline in Belfast as a museum would help strengthen the bond between the city and the 98-year-old warship, a retired naval veteran has claimed.
Dorcas Moore (72), who served on HMS Caroline with the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) between 1959 and 1991, said it would be a huge loss if the ship leaves.
“I would be very sad to see her go,” the pensioner told the Belfast Telegraph. “It would be nice is she could be opened up as a museum so that people could be shown round it. We were all proud of it and proud to have served on it.”
Ms Moore, from Belfast, said the “family atmosphere” on board Caroline meant she made many friends for life.
“The ship was a big part of my life.
“But it was not just me, it was the same for quite a lot of others too. If she is retained and opened to the public it would be a chance to extend the attachment to the city of Belfast.”
Meanwhile, Belfast’s new Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson (left) has also backed a campaign to retain the vessel currently moored at Alexandra Dock in the Titanic Quarter.
“I think it would be a shame if we did lose HMS Caroline to Portsmouth,” the DUP man said. “It is very much part of our history.”
Mr Robinson said he wanted the City Council to forge stronger links with Stormont and hoped both bodies can work together to save Caroline.
“I know there are a number of politicians in Belfast City Council and Stormont who share the same passion when it comes to HMS Caroline,” he added.