NIO gives Hillsborough Castle charity cafe more time to relocate
The Northern Ireland Office has partially bowed to public outrage over its eviction of a mental health charity from Hillsborough Castle by agreeing to allow it more time.
Praxis Care has been running the Secret Garden cafe and gardens within the grounds of Hillsborough for almost a decade.
It provides employment to 15 people, including many with severe learning disabilities.
But last year the NIO told the charity it had to leave the grounds to make way for English charity Historic Royal Palaces to turn Hillsborough into a major tourist attraction.
The NIO said it has given Praxis ample time to find an alternate location, but the move has sparked public outrage. An online petition to allow Praxis to stay at Hillsborough had attracted 800 signatures by last night.
And yesterday Health Minister Edwin Poots weighed into the row, revealing that he was seeking to meet with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers over the matter.
He said he had been "very impressed by the enthusiasm, professionalism and dedication shown by the staff and trainees" when he visited the cafe. "My department's current policy is to promote the improvement of daytime support activities for people with a learning disability," he said.
Mr Poots added that he was aware the case was "complex" but was "keen to see if there is anything we can do to find a solution".
The NIO said it "deeply regrets" that Praxis appears to want a permanent presence at the castle.
A spokeswoman said it was always made clear to Praxis that the rental arrangement for just £1 a year was not permanent.
It claimed that from last April Praxis said it was exploring alternate sites and asked the NIO for £25,000 for a feasibility study. The NIO refused this request.
Praxis chief executive Nevin Ringland told the Belfast Telegraph it had identified three possible alternative locations, but cannot afford them. He has asked the NIO to reimburse it for the £400,000 it invested in the Secret Garden's facilities.
The NIO said it provided sufficient time for Praxis to find alternative arrangements for the cafe but was still "willing to be flexible about the timescale".
Praxis Care said it "very much welcomes the NIO's offer to meet and explore solutions to this particular difficulty".
STORY SO FAR
Praxis Care has been running the Secret Garden cafe and gardens for almost a decade in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle. Former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam first offered the deal to another charity in 1999 before Praxis took it over in 2003. Praxis pays just £1 a year and claims to have invested £400,000 creating the current cafe facilities and gardens.