Hillsborough Castle charity cafe's plea to Queen: Don't throw us out
Anger grows at move to evict group that employs 15 people with learning difficulties
Anger is growing over a plan to evict the workers of a charity cafe from the Queen's residence in Northern Ireland.
Praxis Care runs the Secret Garden cafe which employs 15 people with learning difficulties in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle.
The mental health charity has operated the facility for almost a decade but was told it must leave the site to make way for Historic Royal Palaces to turn the castle into a tourist attraction later this year.
Praxis founder and chief executive Nevin Ringland explained that he understands the legal terms of the castle were changed to allow Historic Royal Palaces access, and that these changes were signed off by representatives of the Royal Household.
"In effect the Queen has allowed this to happen, the decision should be reversed," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
The Royal family has not been directly involved in the decision and a spokeswoman for Buckingham Palace told this paper it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Office and Historic Royal Palaces.
Two weeks ago, Mr Ringland met with a director from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in London who told him they have the legal powers to evict his charity from Hillsborough.
Praxis has invested £400,000 in the Secret Garden which gives opportunities to people with learning disabilities such as Andrew Webb (29) from Portadown.
The charity has been running the cafe since former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam came up with the initiative back in 1999.
However, the NIO which currently runs Hillsborough Castle told Praxis it must be off the grounds by last Friday and it has refused to reimburse Praxis for any of the £400,000 it has invested in the facility.
The deal, which Ms Mowlam initially brokered with another charity before Praxis took over the cafe in 2003, involves a token rent payment, believed to be just £1 a year.
Mr Ringland said in 2010 a new contract offering a 10-year lease on the premises was proposed, but when the new coalition government came into power that year it was taken off the table.
"We fundraised our £400,000 investment, you can't go back to the public and say we now need to do it all again," Mr Ringland said.
It has also now emerged that Historic Royal Palaces has not signed any contracts with the NIO to take over the running of the castle and is not expected to do so until April 1.
Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis queried why the NIO is in such a rush to remove Praxis from the site.
"Theresa Villiers made a commitment that Praxis would not have to move off site until the new scheme was ready to go. It is not ready, so I want to know why she says they have to move out now," he said.
Mr Lewis also said it was "not morally right that a charity which has spent £400,000 developing the cafe and infrastructure should not be reimbursed".
Last night, over 500 people had signed an online petition calling for the Secret Garden cafe to be allowed to remain at the site.
An NIO spokeswoman said it has been in discussion with Praxis for over a year and said the charity has had "ample time to identify new premises and plan for the move".
"It is unfortunate that Praxis are now claiming the NIO are being unfair to their charity by asking them to relocate to new premises, as the NIO considers that an agreement was made by Praxis in 2013 that they would re-locate to allow development of the current Hillsborough Castle estate.
"At no point has there been any agreement, contractual or otherwise, that Praxis' expenditure will be repaid when they vacate.
"Our obligation, particularly in the current climate is to manage assets responsibly, which means existing arrangements cannot continue," she said. "By allowing Historic Royal Palaces to take over the running and administration of Hillsborough Castle, it will mean that the castle and gardens will be enjoyed by so many more people," she concluded.