Even as pro-Praxis protesters gathered at Hillsborough Castle this week it was made “absolutely clear” that the charity could not maintain its on-site operation.
Wednesday’s demonstration against the mental health charity’s eviction from its ‘Secret Garden’ came complete with a petition of 2,000 -plus names, but, according to an angry Councillor Alexander Redpath, the Northern Ireland Office declined to send anyone to the gates to accept it.
Instead, in a joint statement issued during the protest, the NIO and Historic Royal Palaces said they were absolutely clear Praxis could not maintain its walled garden operation.
Among those to attend the protest - itself forerunner to a planned public meeting next Wednesday - Ulster Unionist Mr Redpath lamented the absence of Lagan Valley’s MLAs, but his anger was chiefly reserved for the Northern Ireland Office, whom he accused of adopting a “contemptuous” approach to the Praxis service-users and their supporters throughout.
In their statement, NIO and HRP said: “The space Praxis currently occupies is crucial to Historic Royal Palaces’ plans for the new infrastructure on which its vision depends. It is not possible to have both Praxis in the Walled Garden and the Historic Royal Palaces project; it is one or the other.”
Praxis, they pointed out, had known for more than a year it would have to quit the site and the terms of its licence made clear it could not be compensated.
“They have always known this,” they said. “If they spent a lot of money on the site then they did so at their own risk. However they have benefited from extremely generous terms over several years at the site, including an annual rent of just £1.”
That said, the two have invited Praxis to further talks to see if a way can be found for its service-users to remain involved at Hillsborough under the new operating model. “We believe it is essential, in the best interests of all concerned,” they said, “that any dialogue takes place in private, not in public. To date, Praxis has not responded to this invitation.”
Mr Redpath welcomed any possibility of Praxis staff staying on after the April 1 deadline. “Many members of staff have special educational needs,” he said, “and their welfare must be our foremost concern moving forward.”
However, he insisted the campaign would go on to ensure the best possible outcome. “We will continue to keep the pressure on the NIO to find Praxis Care an alternative site or, failing that, to provide proper compensation,” he said. The UUP councillor said local people had clearly demonstrated their support for Praxis and he he hoped it had sent the NIO a clear message that it should reconsider its stance. The NIO/HRP statement, however, offered little hope of a U-turn. “The Northern Ireland Office very much appreciates the work done at Hillsborough Castle by Praxis over a number of years,” it said. “However, in 2014 Hillsborough is starting an exciting new chapter under the management of Historic Royal Palaces, which inevitably means changes to the estate as we seek to improve facilities and increase visitor numbers . . .Historic Royal Palaces is a charity itself. In its team are experts in preservation and presentation of premises like Hillsborough Castle.
“The plans for Hillsborough will bring substantial investment, create new jobs and attract greatly increased visitor numbers, bringing a very welcome boost to the local economy.”