National Trust chief defends Giant's Causeway charges
The head of the National Trust has defended charging for the visitors' centre and parking at the Giant's Causeway, saying "someone has to pay for them" but insisting there is no charge to see the iconic stones.
Director general Hilary McGrady also admitted mistakes were made over the Trust's support of LGBT issues which led to an MLA cutting ties with the organisation.
In the wide-ranging interview with the BBC the Northern Ireland woman said she was proud of the work the organisation, which she loved, had done in Northern Ireland particularly in purchasing land on Divis Mountain in 2004 from the Ministry of Defence. She described the move to buy the "contested space" as "pivotal".
"I used to live just across from Divis and I always as a child looked at it and couldn't ever climb Divis for obvious reasons," she said
"Then the Trust bought Divis and all of a sudden it was a neutral space and for me it said something about where Northern Ireland was at at the time but it also said something about where the Trust was at.
"It was genuinely trying to open its doors and take a different perspective .. and when the job came up it just had my name on it."
There has been controversy over National Trust facilities at the Giant's Causeway with criticism signs are not clear leading for some to think there is a charge to see the iconic landmark or the organisation's permission to access the site.
Ms McGrady described the Causeway project was "her baby" and the Trust was "trying to be open" about the signs around the area but every penny went into investment at attractions in Northern Ireland.
"I'm not going on some big holiday," she said.
"I'm really clear that anybody that wants to walk to the Causeway stones for free can," she said.
"But somebody has to pay for the thing to be looked after - it doesn't come free.
"So that's why we charge for the visitor centre and we charge for the car park. That's what you're paying for - you're not paying for the stones.
"When the Trust owns a property it pledged through parliament to do so forever... so I will be uncompromising in making sure we are a responsible landlord. But be assured every penny goes back into making sure more people get to enjoy those beautiful places."
The National Trust found itself at the centre of controversy in August 2017 after it insisted staff at Fellbrigg Hall in Norfolk, England wear rainbow badges to celebrate the last lord of the manor, who was gay. A decision it later reversed.
Ms McGrady said mistakes had been made in that they "absolutely should not be insisting" anyone wear something they were not comfortable in doing so but said the Trust was right to run programmes on the history of those people involved with their properties which were part of the LGBT community.
The controversy - along with the organisation's support of Pride in Belfast - were among the reasons MLA Jim Wells cut his ties with the organisation. He had worked for the charity for 10 years and later been a member. He also pledged to remove a condition in his will which saw a donation made to the organisation.
Ms McGrady was appointed to the role of director general of the National Trust in March. She had previously worked for 12 years with the charity and was regional director for Northern Ireland.
Originally trained in graphic design, Ms McGrady's career path started in the drinks industry in brand and marketing. The National Trust is the UK's biggest landowner with assets worth an estimated £1.3billion and an annual income of £600million.
Ms McGrady said she held the National Trust in heart.
"The Trust is a force for good," she said, "I just want it to succeed, I love it."
Belfast Telegraph Digital