Jobs lifeline for workers at Hillsborough Castle cafe
A group of young people with severe learning difficulties who feared losing their jobs at Hillsborough Castle have been thrown a lifeline, it can be revealed.
Local mental health charity Praxis Care has been running the Secret Garden cafe in the grounds of the castle for the past decade.
As part of this enterprise Praxis has trained and provided employment for up to 16 people, some with learning difficulties.
The Belfast Telegraph previously spoke to one of these workers, Andrew Webb (29) from Portadown, who said the opportunity to work in the cafe has changed his life and given him independence that he never had before.
An eviction notice from the Northern Ireland Office who run Hillsborough Castle devastated and frightened Andrew and his colleagues who felt certain they would lose their much-loved jobs.
However, a signal from the NIO yesterday has indicated they may be able to continue working at Hillsborough despite the eviction of Praxis.
Praxis has been told it must have left Hillsborough Castle by April 1, when Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) are due to take over the running of the estate.
HRP plan to transform it into a major visitor attraction.
It is understood that the current cafe will be demolished to make way for a new entrance.
Praxis had asked the NIO to reimburse them for the £400,000 it had invested developing the site.
The money was to have been to help them fund a move to another location and build up a similar enterprise.
However, the NIO refused to compensate them, saying it was impossible under their budget restrictions.
The next hope was to find some way in which the young people could continue to work under HRP.
Yesterday represented a major breakthrough when the NIO signalled this was a possibility.
An NIO spokeswoman said it encourages Praxis to work with HRP.
"The NIO has told Praxis that there may be possibilities for some or all of their service users with Historic Royal Palaces in the future, within the overall framework of their plans for Hillsborough Castle," she said.
"The NIO has also encouraged Praxis to explore this further with Historical Royal Palaces. So far Praxis has not responded."
It is understood that talks are set to begin shortly to try and make sure that all the young Praxis workers can be accommodated under the new arrangements.
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.
It is the official residence of the Queen when she is visiting Northern Ireland.
It was previously 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, and it remains that way today.