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Stormont comes under fire over closure of warship HMS Caroline

HMS Caroline

A board of trustees responsible for HMS Caroline has accused a Stormont department of "misrepresenting the facts" surrounding the decision to keep the visitor attraction closed until next year.

In a letter published in today's Belfast Telegraph, Tim Schadla-Hall, chair of the HMS Caroline Preservation Company, insisted the DfE had effectively "imposed" the closure decision. The DfE has denied the claims.

Last week it was announced the warship, the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland still afloat, will remain closed until 2021 due to funding pressures.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) - which operates HMS Caroline in the Titanic Quarter on behalf of the Stormont Executive - said the decision was taken after an operations and funding agreement could not be reached with the DfE.

The organisation said it has been under "extraordinary financial pressure", with a funding gap of in excess of £6m and has warned that jobs could be lost if the situation is not rectified.

HMS Caroline had been temporarily closed since March 17 in line with public health advice.Then the operational agreement for HMS Caroline expired on June 30, leaving NMRN unable to go on operating the ship.

Mr Schadla-Hall said he was "appalled at the continued closure of HMS Caroline when it should be reopening and welcoming visitors", calling on the Economy Minister to intervene on the issue.

"I am shocked by the Northern Ireland Department for Economy's misrepresentation of the facts and would urge minister Diane Dodds to conduct an immediate review of her department's management of its relationship with my board," he said.

The DfE said last week that it had been "concerned about these deficits for some time" and had worked closely with NMRN on the matter, adding it had deployed external consultants to examine the deficit.

"It is expected to report in August 2020. However, to help with cash-flow issues during the Covid-19 crisis, the Department has already made a substantial interim payment to NMRN," a spokesperson said.

The department added that when the agreement expired, the naval organisation "took the decision not to renew this agreement without a revised funding model" put in place.

Mr Schadla-Hall claimed funding issues started in 2016, leading to an 18-month delay in the warship being fully open to the public in 2018.

He said the DfE was "not correct" when it said it had been "first informed" of the deficit in the autumn of that year.

"The shortfall in funding was regularly reported at meetings where representatives of the DfE were present from at least 2016," he said.

Mr Schadla-Hall said "DfE effectively imposed the closure on the NMRN at a time when Caroline could be reopening now".

In response, DfE said it had not been left with "sufficient time" to come up with "a new funding model, redraft a new operating agreement, or to procure a new operator of the attraction" once the NMRN confirmed it was not renewing the agreement on June 10.

"Therefore, the Minister decided to extend the current period of closure of the attraction until 31 December 2020," it said.

Belfast Telegraph