Castle’s custodians accused of ‘takeover’

Hillsborough Castle.
Hillsborough Castle.

Hillsborough Castle’s custodians are standing accused of “an aggressive takeover” of the village.

According to one ‘Perplexed Resident’, who has called for an Assembly investigation, Historic Royal Palaces has failed to live up to expectations built around its stewardship of the castle and is intent on sewing up access to otherwise public space and monopolising visitors to the village.

The charity itself says it relies on funds from ticket sales, retail, catering, functions etc but nonetheless hopes the project will attract more visitors for the benefit of local businesses, to which end it plans to create a new access and re-entry point between village and castle.

HRP assumed responsibility for the castle from the Northern Ireland Office in April 2014, proclaiming widely welcomed plans for development taking in the old courthouse and Hillsborough Fort, though the transition was dogged by controversy as mental health charity Praxis unsuccessfully contested eviction from its ‘Secret Garden’ in the castle grounds.

It’s now claimed that access to the castle is priced beyond the reach of the community groups and charities who would have typically used it for fundraising purposes.

Describing HRP as intent on “having a total monopoly on what should be public space for use by all”, the claimant said: “Businesses in Hillsborough, who were assured they would prosper from the big increase in footfall to the castle, have had no such benefit. Indeed HRP are to open their own coffee shops, restaurant and souvenir shop, so it is unlikely that village establishments will ever benefit from the expected influx of visitors to the castle.”

The villager predicted that when HRP adopted responsibility for the courthouse and Hillsborough Fort, costs there would be, again, beyond the reach of the community and both would be used by “high paying corporate clients and high-society weddings”.

“This aggressive takeover of Hillsborough by HRP, its interference in the public realm discussion and its treatment of local businesses needs urgent investigation by the Assembly,” he said.

A HRP spokesperson responded: “We are undertaking a major project to open up Hillsborough Castle and Gardens to the widest possible audience. Our ambition is to create a sustainable future for Hillsborough Castle, no longer reliant on public money. “

Due to invest some £16m in the site over the next few years, she said, HRP was fostering links with other charitable organisations, local schools, community and youth groups.

She added: “New jobs are being created and the planned increase in visitor numbers will make a significant contribution to the local economy.

“We aim to attract 200,000 visitors a year to Hillsborough Castle from summer 2019. . . and must provide the facilities people expect of a world-class visitor destination.”

HRP, she said, was also discussing the future care and management of the courthouse and Fort, but the future of the wider public realm was “a matter for Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.”