United stance over cafe eviction
The Northern Ireland Office remained unmoved by a cross-party protest at its plans to evict a mental health charity cafe from Hillsborough Castle.
Lisburn mayor Margaret Tolerton of the DUP, Sinn Fein MLA Mickey Brady, UUP councillor Alex Redpath and SDLP councillor Pat Catney were among protesters opposing the NIO's decision to evict Praxis Care.
Praxis has run the Secret Garden cafe for almost a decade. It provides employment for 16 young people with learning disabilities.
But now Praxis has been told it must leave to make way for English heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), which will make the castle into a visitor attraction.
HRP will sign contracts to take over the running of the site on April 1. Praxis invested £400,000 in the cafe and pleaded with the NIO for compensation to help it move, but it was refused.
An NIO spokeswoman issued a statement in which it reiterated its position that Praxis cannot remain on the castle grounds.
"The NIO and Historic Royal Palaces are absolutely clear that Praxis cannot maintain their operation in the castle's walled garden," the statement said. "The space Praxis currently occupies is crucial to Historic Royal Palaces' plans for new infrastructure. It is not possible to have both Praxis in the walled garden and Historic Royal Palaces; it is one or other."
The NIO said it was keen to see if there was some way for its service users to remain involved under the new operating model. Praxis chief executive Nevin Ringland said the situation had been distressing to the 16 cafe workers.
"This is not about money for us, this is about our service users," he said. "We invested £400,000 into this cafe and while we have been looking for alternative locations we do not have the funds to move. That is all we are asking for."
Director of care services at Praxis, William McAllister, said the process of moving the workers could take up to six months.
"We are talking about 16 young people with learning disabilities, they are our priority," he said.
"It is important that the NIO and HRP realised that these people's lives are involved here, moving them is not something that can be done quickly."
Sinn Fein's Mr Brady, who worked closely with Praxis in Newry before getting involved in politics, said he was dismayed at the decision.
The SDLP's Mr Catney, who has a daughter with a learning disability, branded the decision "wrong and immoral".
And the UUP's Mr Redpath hoped "this protest has sent a very clear message" to the NIO to reconsider its stance.
"Lisburn is a city that cares about people. I feel the young workers at this cafe have been treated terribly by the NIO, very high-handedly. They do well in a settled, secure environment and this has been taken away from them. It is just terrible, there seems to have been no compassion and no empathy."
Lisburn mayor Margaret Tolerton