Protesters to besiege Hillsborough Castle over eviction of charity cafe
Angry supporters of a cafe run by a mental health charity facing eviction from Hillsborough Castle plan to bring their protest to the Queen's front door in Northern Ireland.
By last night, more than 1,000 people had signed a petition calling on the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to allow Praxis Care to continue running its Secret Garden cafe in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle.
The facility has been there for almost a decade and is staffed by people with severe learning difficulties.
But last year the NIO told Praxis it must leave to make way for English charity Historic Royal Palaces, which plans to take over the running of the castle.
Historic Royal Palaces, which runs the Tower of London and Hampden Court Palace, plans to turn Hillsborough Castle into a major tourist attraction.
On Friday Praxis was given a deadline to vacate the premises. The NIO announced on Tuesday that it would be flexible over when the charity must leave.
Praxis said it had identified alternative locations for its cafe, which employ 15 people.
It invested £400,000 at Hillsborough and asked the NIO for compensation. But the NIO refused, blaming budget cuts.
However, the row has outraged supporters of the cafe who have revealed they are planning to hold a protest at Hillsborough Castle in support of Praxis Care on Wednesday, March 12.
Ulster Unionist activist Alexander Redpath said the Secret Garden cafe is a "beloved fixture of the community".
"People are angry and confused," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "They don't understand why Praxis are being turfed out."
Health Minister Edwin Poots is expected to meet with Praxis today. He also plans to talk to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
Mr Poots said his department's current policy is to promote the improvement of day support activities for people with a learning disability across Northern Ireland.
He said he was "aware this is a complex situation" but said he was "keen to see if there is anything we can do to find a solution that causes minimum impact on those who are working there".
The NIO said it had allowed Praxis to operate the cafe for just £1 per year rent and emphasised the deal was never permanent.
Historic Royal Palaces is expected to sign a contract to take over the running of Hillsborough Castle on April 1.
Praxis Care has been running the Secret Garden cafe and gardens for 10 years in 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.