Exploris: Cross-party support for threatened aquarium
Stormont parties have joined forces to urge Executive ministers to help throw a lifeline to the threatened regional aquarium Exploris.
An Ulster Unionist Party motion, calling on relevant Executive departments "to provide the regional funding, resource and support required by Ards Borough Council to maximise the benefit of Exploris," was passed by 52 votes to 31.
The vote shifted the emphasis towards ministers, amending an Alliance motion asking Ards council, which runs the Portaferry attraction, to urgently draw up a coherent plan for investment and financial support, to which the Executive should then respond "quickly and positively".
The cross-party support came after a petition demanding Exploris is saved – containing 11,000 signatures – was handed in to the Assembly by Alliance's Kieran McCarthy.
"It is reckoned that some 40 jobs are dependent on Exploris being there," he said.
"The effect of the recession has been a reduction in footfall at a time when costs were increasing."
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt questioned the political will to save the facility, and asked: "Is it right to support the status quo when Exploris is costing ratepayers in the area somewhere in the region of £450,000... a disputed figure I acknowledge?"
Mr Nesbitt, who also represents Strangford, warned: "If this Assembly and Executive does not fund this facility, it will close in around three weeks."
The DUP's Michelle McIlveen, a former Ards councillor, said the attempt to 'sectarianise' the issue by Sinn Fein and SDLP representatives was counter-productive and nationalist parties "should be ashamed of themselves".
But Sinn Fein's Chris Hassard denied playing politics with the issue and asked why DUP tourism minister Arlene Foster refused to take the lead.
The SDLP's Karen McKevitt said the economic contribution of Exploris visitors to the general area is "vital" and its role as a sanctuary for seals is invaluable.
Exploris is one of the top 10 tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. Based in Portaferry on the edge of Strangford Lough, it has been in existence since 1987 and at its height was capable of attracting over 100,000 visitors a year. But Ards Borough Council is now proposing its closure.