A row has broken out after it emerged HMS Caroline cannot reopen to the public this year due to a funding shortfall from the Department for the Economy.
The Navy’s museum will reopen sites across UK thanks to emergency support from the Treasury, but an agreement has not been reached with the Northern Ireland Executive which is responsible for HMS Caroline which is moored in Belfast.
UUP leader Steve Aiken has accused Economy Minister Diane Dodds of effectively shutting down the tourist attraction ship while trying to attract tourism to the city.
Mr Aiken said: “Today’s announcement that the future status of HMS Caroline is uncertain, is a debacle that the Minister of the Economy needs to address urgently.
“When we became aware of the circumstances of the shutting of this historic ship – which saw service in WW1 – as a visitors attraction, just at the same time that the rest of the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s is planning to reopen, we wrote to the Minister and also raised the issue in the Assembly.
Pic: Neil Hunter Image Nh Photography
“Serious questions are raised by the fact that this crisis has apparently been created by the failure of the Department to make payments due to the NMRN, and an operating agreement on how the ship is managed being allowed to run out, again by the Minister’s department.
“That the Minister is even considering shutting the ship down for ‘6 months’, with the paying off of staff, at the same time as her own department attempts to maintain and bolster our NI tourism and visitor attractions, simply beggars belief.
“There is no doubt that despite the support that Arlene Foster gave personally to the Royal Navy Museum, that DETI and now DfE have failed to follow up on agreements made.
Picture: Michael Cooper
“It is regrettable that rather being part of a globally leading set of Maritime Attractions in Belfast’s historic Titanic quarter, 2021 will probably be marked by HMS CAROLINE being towed away to Portsmouth – not the start to Northern Ireland’s centenary year we hoped for.”
HMS Caroline is owned by National Museum of the Royal Navy and opened to the public through an Operator Agreement made with the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland.
NMRN operates the ship seeking to maximise income to cover costs, but any shortfall had been covered by the DfE until 30 June 2020 when the agreement expired, so responsibility for the operation of the ship has now fallen back to DfE.
HMS Caroline, the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the largest naval battle ever fought, has become one of Belfast’s leading visitor attractions since it opened to the public in 100 years later. Now it looks set to remain closed until at least 2021.
Picture: Michael Cooper
HMS Caroline was temporarily closed on March 17, 2020, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its staff and visitors in line with public health advice.
Dominic Tweddle, Director General for the NMRN, said: “This is a desperate situation for the Museum and especially for our incredibly dedicated team at HMS Caroline.
“Since COVID-19 hit in March, our trustees and I have been working tirelessly to financially secure all of our sites. The support which was confirmed by HM Treasury this week was a welcome relief, but it does not alter our position in Belfast.
“We have liaised exhaustively with DfE and continue to do so in the hope that we could still reopen HMS Caroline alongside our sites across the UK. We are fortunate that we have a few weeks of being able to support staff’s salaries under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme whilst we continue to fight to secure the future of the ship and its team. However, if we are not able to sway DfE from its current position then HMS Caroline will not reopen until 2021 and those jobs will have to be made redundant.”
A Department for the Economy spokesperson said visitor numbers had been disappointing resulting in operational deficits.
They added: “The department agreed with NMRN to extend the current period of closure of the attraction until 31st December 2020.
“The Department will utilise this period of closure to fully and thoroughly examine in detail all options and costs for the future of the attraction, taking into account how the tourism sector in Northern Ireland is likely to recover in the short, medium and long term.
“The Department has also advised NMRN that it will meet agreed costs associated with this period of temporary closure, which include salary costs of two members of staff who will be maintaining and overseeing the ship during this time. The remainder of the HMSC staff are currently on furlough through the Job Retention Scheme.”