Kindly Belfast pensioner who feeds Stormont cats banned as security risk
Three cats that have made the grounds of the Stormont Estate their home are the latest unlikely victims of the collapse of the political institutions.
In a security review that has involved bureaucracy at the highest level, a pensioner who has been looking after cats there for 30 years has been barred from feeding them.
Edna Watters last night told the Belfast Telegraph how she was broken-hearted at being denied access to Ginger, Maggie and Furby whom she has known since they were born.
"I've cared for the cats in Stormont for three decades. I've fed them 365 days a year - on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, or whatever occasion it is. I've never missed a day," said the 76-year-old east Belfast woman.
"Even when there has been two feet of snow, I've been there. Now, the powers-that-be are stopping me looking after my cats.
"They say I'm a security risk, which is nonsense."
Kind-hearted Edna, who is a well-known figure in the grounds of Stormont, is being stopped from entering by security guards acting on orders from senior civil servants.
"I don't blame the security men, they're only doing what they've been told to do. They are lovely fellows and they all know me because I bring them sausage rolls on Saturdays," she said.
In an email seen by the Belfast Telegraph, a senior civil servant says Edna is barred from feeding her beloved cats under new security measures adopted by SEMU (Stormont Estate Management Unit).
"SEMU has instructed all security guards to ensure that only those visitors with a valid business reason are permitted access to the restricted areas of the estate," the email states.
"SEMU takes the view that visitors providing food for feral cats does not constitute a business need and as such entry has been refused and will be so going forward." Edna has been strongly supported in her campaign to feed her cats by local DUP MLA Joanne Bunting, who said she was appalled that "an elderly woman trying to do good was being thwarted by some jobsworth and treated as if she was a security threat".
Edna, who lives in Gilnahirk, said that the ban on her looking after the cats had started with the political talks to save devolution at Stormont Castle.
"They're saying it's for security reasons, but they've never liked the cats," she said.
"Over the years, they've come up with numerous excuses to stop me feeding them.
"They're not feral cats at all. Ginger is a bit wilder but you can lift and hold Maggie and Furby, and make a fuss over them.
"Furby is 20 and Maggie is 12. Journalists covering Stormont think Maggie is a boy and they've wrongly called her George.
"Maggie and Furby live in the grounds of Stormont House and Ginger lives just up the steps in the walled garden."
More stringent security measures have been in place as the talks were held in nearby Stormont Castle. "I was feeding the cats just before the ban fully came into place and Arlene Foster came out from the talks for a wee walk.
"I told her they were trying to stop me looking after them and I think she will help me fight that," the pensioner said.
Edna recalled how she started looking after Stormont's cats when she worked as a civil servant there 30 years ago. "There were 25 feral cats then and they were treated terribly.
"The powers that be brought in a pest control agency to try to gas them. Another civil servant, Carol, and myself were alarmed," she said. We paid out of our own pockets for as many of the cats as possible to be spayed and neutered.
"I took whatever kittens there were home, domesticated them, and found them families.
"The adult cats stayed in Stormont and Carol and myself looked after them.
"At one stage, we were bringing 10 tins of food a day and a box of dried food to feed them all.
"It didn't matter how much money it cost, we couldn't leave them to starve."
The two women kept caring for the cats even after they retired from Stormont. "These cats are our cats. They're family to us. I live locally but Carol drives over from the other side of town to feed them," Edna said.
The pensioner recounted how, over the years, the huge colony of cats has been reduced to just three. "One by one, they disappeared," she said. "Some died of old age, others were run over by cars.
"Maggie's sister Evie died from cancer last year. We've buried her in the grounds of Stormont House."
Edna claimed that there was always hostility to the cats from officialdom. "They're using security as an excuse now, but they used to tell us not to feed the cats because they brought vermin to the estate.
"Once I was summoned to a meeting with someone high up and he produced a thick file of photographs of me feeding the cats over the years. He said it had to stop. I was stunned that such a dossier existed," she said.
In the recent correspondence, which resembles something from an episode of 'Yes Minister', a top official says that the new security measures are in place following a breach of security which led to the Stormont Estate being evacuated one Saturday.
"SEMU takes the view that only those visitors with a bona fide business need should be allowed access to the estate," it states.
According to the email, the boxes in which the cats live "now need to be removed to ensure the aesthetics of these areas are maintained". It states that when the cats are moved to a new "location agreed by SEMU", Edna will be free to visit them.
But the defiant pensioner last night insisted: "The cats shouldn't be moved from their home under any circumstances."
The animals are currently being fed by Stormont House staff but Edna is worried about what happens them at weekends.
Ms Bunting said the ban on the 76-year-old was nonsensical.
"Edna is an animal lover who is trying to do good," she said.
"After 30 years of caring for these cats, some jobsworth is treating her as a security risk and talking about how she's entering a restricted zone.
"The security staff all know her.
"I find it ridiculous that, at a time when the civil service is responsible for the Northern Ireland budget, some individuals are busying themselves with something so minor.
"I urge them to get a sense of perspective. Let this woman keep doing her good deed."