Disabled charity Praxis Care to be evicted from Queen's Northern Ireland residence at Hillsborough Castle
One of Northern Ireland's leading mental health charities is to be evicted from Hillsborough Castle.
Praxis Care has been running a market garden and cafe at the castle for nine years.
Former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam originally invited another mental health charity to set up a cafe at Hillsborough for a token rent – understood to be just £1 a year – during her time in office.
The deal was transferred to Praxis in 2004.
The castle is currently owned and managed by the Northern Ireland Office, but the Historic Royal Palaces is set to take over its running.
New plans for the castle do not allow room for Praxis to continue its work, which provides employment to 16 people with learning difficulties.
Centre manager Vanessa Coulter said it was devastated by the decision.
"It gives people a purpose, you know? People that have been in hospital for years, that have no confidence, no assertiveness skills, this is fundamental to how they develop as an adult with a learning disability," she said.
Praxis has invested a total of £400,000 in its facility at Hillsborough.
Charity spokesman William McAllister said there has been no offer of compensation for work done at the castle.
"But we hold out hope that there will be some opportunity for us to properly negotiate with the NIO," he said.
It is understood that local people are planning to hold a protest if Praxis is forced to leave and that an online petition in support is being set up via Direct Gov.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he is disappointed by the decision and has met with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers on the charity's behalf.
"Whilst I am absolutely delighted that Historic Royal Palaces are taking over Hillsborough Castle in terms of its day-to-day management, I am disappointed that Praxis could not be accommodated within the new set-up," he said.
Mr Donaldson suggested that the grounds of Stormont might make a good alternative location for the Praxis cafe.
Shadow secretary of state Ivan Lewis also expressed concern at the matter and said the NIO had a "moral responsibility" towards the 16 people who work at Hillsborough.
An NIO spokesperson said the charity will not be compensated for its investment and insisted it has been given ample time to find alternative accommodation.
"The NIO appreciates the valuable work that Praxis has done," he said.
"Praxis has operated at Hillsborough at extremely generous rent for around 10 years and has had significant financial assistance from the NIO in developing the site.
"The NIO has been clear throughout the period of Praxis' licence that no expenditure will be repaid when they vacate."
Hillsborough Castle was built in the 18th century for the Hill family, Marquesses of Downshire, who owned it until 1922 when they sold it to the Government. Following the partition of Ireland in 1921 it became the official residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland. It is also the official residence of the Queen when she is visiting. It was off limits to the public until Labour's Mo Mowlam became Secretary of State, when she opened up the grounds of the castle to the public.