The organiser of a public meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis at Praxis at Hillsborough Castle has said he is disappointed the event had to be cancelled after the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) failed to send representatives.
The meeting, which had been arranged for Wednesday (March 19), was aimed at demonstrating the strength of support for the charity, which has been told by the NIO that it must leave its current home in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle.
Responding to the invitation, the NIO and HRP jointly refused to send representatives to sit on the panel at the meeting, saying discussions with Praxis were “of a private nature.” In a joint statement, which they asked to be read out at the meeting, had it gone ahead, the NIO and HRP said: “The Northern Ireland Office very much appreciates the work done at Hillsborough Castle by Praxis over a number of years.
“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.
“The NIO and Historic Royal Palaces are absolutely clear that Praxis cannot maintain their operation in the castle’s Walled Garden.
“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.”
Meeting organiser Neil McNickle said he was disappointed with the response and, after local MLAs also pulled out of the meeting, he took the decision to cancel it altogether.
“The NIO and Historic Royal Palaces have a duty to keep local residents informed of developments,” said Mr McNickle. “I am very disappointed that they turned down this invitation.”
Lisburn Councillor Alexander Redpath said he was “appalled” with the response. “I am appalled by the contempt with which local people are being treated both by the NIO and Historic Royal Palaces,” he said. “Their refusal to engage implies that they don’t care about the views of local people.
“At the recent protest outside Hillsborough Castle the NIO wouldn’t even send out an official to collect our petition in support of Praxis Care,” concluded Mr Redpath.
“This was very disrespectful of the 2,000 people who subscribed their names to our petition.”
Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn has called on the Northern Ireland Office to overturn their decision on Praxis.
“I think the Praxis café is a fantastic initiative that provides employment for people with learning difficulties,” said Mr Lunn. “I am very disappointed in the way that Theresa Villiers and the Northern Ireland Office have handled this dispute.
“I believe that the Secretary of State has acted in bad faith by refusing to be flexible and allow Praxis to continue to run the café in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle. At the very least she should give them compensation for the investment made by Praxis over the years.
“This dispute is not just an argument between two rival businesses. Praxis is providing a valuable service to help those with learning difficulties. I hope the Northern Ireland Office will reconsider their decision,” concluded Mr Lunn.