Tuesday 17 October 2017 05:35:34 PM

Boyle Expresses Anger At Threatened Portaferry Exploris Closure
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Ards Borough Council is to consider the closure of Exploris, the aquarium and seal sanctuary in Portaferry.

Subject to agreement by the Council next week (Wednesday 25 September), consultation with staff and Trade Unions will begin, with a view to closing the aquarium and placing the site on the market for sale. Any decision will also be subject to equality screening. The Council currently employs 18 permanent staff, equating to approximately 15 full-time equivalents and a number of casual workers.

Ards Borough Council will decide on the future of the Portaferry Exploris aquarium centre on Wednesday 25 September.

Ards Borough Council will decide on the future of the Portaferry Exploris aquarium centre on Wednesday 25 September.

Portaferry SDLP Councillor Joe Boyle has expressed his anger at the Exploris issue having reached the stage of potential closure putting over 18 jobs at risk. He described the situation as a “possible disaster for Portaferry”.

The Exploris aquarium centre was hailed as one of the top six tourist centres in Northern Ireland and now the Council had been seeking private sector investment in the facility in a bid to reduce the financial burden on the ratepayer which amounts to some £600K each year.

The company which was to manage the facility, Livingstone Leisure, withdrew from the process, after confirming that, under the rules which apply in Northern Ireland, it was unable to put in place the broadly comparable pension scheme required for existing staff.

Ards Borough Council has owned and operated the aquarium since 1987. It began life as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse marine life that exists around Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea. The Council extended and re-opened the aquarium, known as Exploris, in 1994. Prince Charles performed the opening ceremony. The Seal Sanctuary, which provides for the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, orphaned and injured seal pups, was opened in 1999.  Since 1992, the Council has invested £10.8M (net).

The underwater world of Portaferry's Exploris aquarium may soon be a feature of the past.

The underwater world of Portaferry’s Exploris aquarium may soon be a feature of the past.

Chairman of the Council’s Development Committee, Councillor Trevor Cummings, said the action was being proposed with deep regret: “This is not a recommendation we make lightly, knowing that it will impact directly on our staff, the town of Portaferry and the wider tourism base.

“However, the level of expenditure required is not sustainable in this economic climate when we face so many financial pressures, and regrettably, we feel this is the only realistic option”.

But a political row was simmering as Councillor Boyle responded to the closure move by saying that: “The DUP are pushing for this closure. They want to use the savings to build a leisure centre in Newtownards. The DUP have said ‘No’ to Portaferry, ‘No’ to Exploris and ‘No’ to Ards toursim where around 90,000 visitors a year visit the Exploris centre.

“The nuts and bots are that from studies we know that Exploris contributes around £3million to the local economy.

“The Council decision on Wednesday 25 September will simply be to ratify a decision already taken.  I am extremely disappointed that the UUP councillors appear to be rowing in behind the DUP on this matter and need to stop and reflect on where this is going.

“For example, there is the relationship with QUB Marine Lab to consider, the welfare of the living animals needs to be ensured, and the important work of the seals project will also be lost along with all the good work done on environmental awareness. The Exploris is the jewel in the crown in Ards and it may be gone forever.

“I really doubt if there will be real savings. They are all just going ahead with their eyes closed. We see already that North Down will merge with Ards under RPA and they are forging ahead trying to leave a legacy for their communities while we in Ards are running down our prime tourism project.”

The DUP Ards Council group leader, Councillor Eddie Thompson, said: “A statement has been issued on behalf of Ards Council. The DUP in the Council will not be commenting on the matter until after the meeting on the 25 September.”

A Council spokesperson added: “If the closure option is agreed, the Council must consult with staff and Trade Unions and equality screen its decision. This process is anticipated to take a minimum of two months and means no firm timescale for any closure can be given at this point.”