Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Evicting charity is a PR own goal

If you set out to write the definitive guide to bad public relations you could do a lot worse than follow the example of the Northern Ireland Office which is evicting a local mental health charity from the grounds of Hillsborough Castle.

This is a story which has all the emotional strings attached to get the public on the side of the charity, Praxis. It has run a cafe and garden in the grounds for the last decade.

This venture gives work – but above all self-esteem and sense of value – to a number of people with learning difficulties. They would find it hard to gain employment elsewhere.

So it doesn't sound good that the Queen – in effect – is telling these people to quit.

Admittedly it is not a direct order from Her Majesty but it comes from the NIO to facilitate the Historic Royal Palaces' bid to make Hillsborough more of a tourist attraction. The Queen's crest is easy to attach to the story.

But is more than a PR own-goal; it is a serious blow to Praxis. This is one of a number of projects it runs in the province to prepare people with learning difficulties for independent living.

The charity has also invested £400,000 in the Hillsborough project over the past decade and the NIO is flatly refusing to reimburse the charity, saying that was made clear in the original terms of the lease.

The NIO is sticking strictly to the terms of the original agreement and may have the law on its side. But this is not just about legal terms; it is also about generosity of spirit and recognition of wonderful work being done by a charity, funded by the public.

It seems incredible that the NIO is being so heavy handed on a matter which requires a delicacy of touch, even some bending of the rules if need be.

Surely it is not impossible for an accommodation to be reached in this case. After all Praxis is an organisation which is doing invaluable work with some of society's most vulnerable people and this should be recognised by the NIO.

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