It was a quiet Saturday morning in Portaferry when Councillor Joe Boyle arrived at the Exploris Aqaurium as the door opened at 11am.
The beleaguered facility on the shores of Strangford Lough has become the centre of a huge political row reaching from the chamber of Ards Borough Council where it began to Stormont and even to Westminster. Since it opened 27 years ago, Exploris has drawn 1.75 million visitors to the area.
Speaking to Down News, Councillor Joe Boyle (SDLP) expressed his full support for Exploris but added he has experienced a range of emotions from dismay, frustration to anger in recent days.
Councillor Boyle said: “It is no secret that some DUP councillors aided by a few UUP councillors are opposed to a future for Exploris. They have argued it is a burden on the ratepayers. Some have argued that it is in the corner of the borough and not therefore strategically important enough to warrant maintaining the annual running costs.
“Fundamentally, Exploris is part of the tourist and recreational structure of Portaferry and the wider region, and provides a key role in assisting with marine research and conservation. For example, there is a marine tidal turbine in the lough which is a first for in this type of renewable energy research.
“There are many other examples of the ‘Portaferry hub’ experience such as the tidal tank in the QUB research station, another first for Ireland. And among its many environmental designations, Strangford Lough is a Marine Nature Reserve.
“And the many research students who have traveled the world have praised the Exploris Aquarium as a unique and precious asset that needs to be fostered. A year there are now almost 100,000 visitors to the Exploris facility too who enjoy the experience and many return for subsequent visits adding to the welcome visitor footfall in Portaferry.
“Directly and indirectly, with over 40 staff and more volunteers on top of this, the Ards Peninsula will be adversely affected if Ards Council decides to close this facility. Closure will have spin-offs to the income on the Strangford Ferry to local shops, pubs and restaurants in Ards and Strangford village and beyond.
“Ideally we need to put a halt to this closure threat and create a strategy for the future sustainability of Exploris. The councillors at Ards Borough Councillors need to step up to the plate on this. It is not just another leisure centre. It is the only facility of its sort in Ireland north and south and we need to be proud of Exploris and what the staff have achieved over the years.
“There seems to be an uncanny hurry among those councillors opposed to Exploris to close it quickly. In the Ards borough, the Portaferry population only represents ten percent of the overall population of the borough as a whole. It is significant that under the Review of Public Administration, Councils will have to provide protective equality proofing after they merge, and this begs the question, are these councillors trying to off-load Exploris before Ards Borough Council merges with North Down Council?
“Councillors have a duty to provide leisure facilities on an equitable basis and support this through the rates, but a number of years ago councillors agreed to transfer Exploris from Recreation to under the remit of Tourism and Economic Development, and under this umbrella, Exploris does not have that duty-bound protection built in to the Council’s working procedures. Therefore, this now gives the Council the justification to close it after having moved the goalposts by moving Exploris into another Council department.
“I would also question the figures presented that £600,000 is needed annually to keep Exploris open. I think it could be closer to £400,000 and these figures need to be opened fully to public scrutiny.
“Each government department in the Assembly can help to support Exploris and even though budgets are tighter, this can be done in reality. There is a lot of good will out there backing the Save Exploris campaign. The Friends of Exploris have a huge pool of talent to draw on to support Exploris. This is an asset we must fully utilise. Many people have specialist skills that need to be nurtured. Many good ideas have already been generated and what Exploris needs is a creative and positive solution for a new future, not to allow it to run on and run down as has been happeneing. After a while it all becomes a self-fullfilling prophesy.
“Perhaps North Down Council councillors when they merge with Ards may bring something positive to the table and help Explosis to move ahead into the twenty first century. My understanding is that North Down councillors are in fact keen to look at this scenario.
“Also this has been a very long haul for the staff at Exploris and they have has to endure the uncertainly of the gradual run down, and now with the help of NIPSA challenge the closure threat. Closure is lingering like a bad wound over Exploris. Although the staff have worked tirelessly and with great dedication to their work, they are now faced with a very serious situation.
“There is very little work in the Portaferry area and for some parents, travel outside Portaferry will be impossible.
“I believe this crisis began when the Director of Economic Development left his post in Ards Borough Council some time ago. That was the turning point.
“Ards Council needs to be mindful that Portaferry is an area of deprivation. And that it produces a very important tourism product along with educational, recreational and environment benefits.
“If Exploris closes, the investment that Ards Borough Council has made of £9 million will be lost. We have a couple of months to sort this out. The clock is ticking. There is still an option that a private enterprise body may appear at the eleventh hour.
“The Exploris building if closed would no doubt become subject to vandalism if it was left un attended.
“We have to look too at the several acres are open space adjacent to the Exploris. We have a bowling green and building closed down, a pond area being looked after by the local wildfowlers, a play area, toilets and a grassy green area.
“Will this open space be sold off with the building? Or transferred to a new lease> Will the people of Strangford lose access to this? Many questions are raised. It may all be a ridiculous waste. And just to thing that the bowling green was in its day the most expensive one in Ireland to construct.
“I will continue to support the campaign and work with anyone to hep find a satisfactory s0lution. A solution must be found. We cannot accept anything less.”
Councillor Joe Boyle wants Exploris not to be a political football but to be a main flagship for tourism, environmental education and a stimulus for recreation and social life.
The question is now: will the Exploris Aquarium sink or swim? Campaigners are gathering forces. But time is not in their favour. This crisis could go to the wire.