AT a packed meeting in the Portaferry Hotel in Portaferry, local residents, business people and staff of the belleaguerred Exploris Aquarium received an assurance from Alison Millar, deputy general of NIPSA, that the union would fight tooth and claw to protect the staff at Exploris.
Underpinning the mood of the evening was the question of why Exploris has been forced into this difficult position facing closure when all political parties are openly in support.
With a wide array of local politicians present, Alison Millar, NIPSA Deputy General Secretary, pulled no punches when she said that all of the parties at Stormont are in agreement that Exploris should remain open and that the politicians had to deliver on this.
Alison Millar said: “We are very short of time. We are arguing for a regional service that is funded by central government. All of the government departments involved need to be supporting Exploris. Staff know only too well that Exploris needs a cash injection to make it a world class facility.
“The staff have worked in difficult conditions over the past few years and now we must clear this issue up properly. The private sector interest seems to have move off from the the coal face just for te moment, but we must look after our workers and ther terms and conditions as part of all of this.
“We are conscious too that there is not a lot of money in government to work with but nevertheless privatisation of Exploris was never the correct answer to its future. This could never be carried by Ards ratepayers in the long term. Therefore there may have been reasons to close Exploris for other reasons.
“These public facilities are bodies that are basically not for profit. The solution to saving Exploris will involve a lot of work over teh next few weeks. Ards Council cannot afford to lose forty jobs in this area and the local economy benefits to teh tune of £3 million a year from Exploris.
“Closure would have a huge impact including traffic on the ferry service. We want this facility to be here for teh next 20 years and this can only be done with the proper regional funding in place. We need a core group to come together now and make this happen.”
In closing the meeting, NIPSA’s Alison Millar put a motion to the meeting that the staff, residents and community fight together for regional funding to support Exploris as a regionally-funded public service. The motion was carried unanimously.
The DOE Environment Minister Mark Durkin was sympathetic added Alison Millar and he is understood to be rallying other departments in the NI Executive to row in behind Exploris. The Minister has met politicians from the area and is to meet councillors from Ards Borough Council in the near future.
Also speaking at the meeting, Antionette McMullan, local NIPSA representative added that “We are going to fight for the future of Exploris. Regional funding is required and we have to get this message across to Ards Borough Council. The Council tried beforee to achieve this and failed. We will take this campaign to Stormont if necessary.”
Strangford MLA Kieran McCarthy said: “Minister Mark Durkin is sympathetic to the Exploris cause. I was speaking with him today on this and I have put down a motion for debate in the Assembly and also put down an adjourment debate which won’t be heard until 4 November at the earliest.
“All public representatives are behind Exploris.”
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie also expressed her full support and said: “I have already written to the DOE Minister on the Exploris issue of putting a cocktail of funding together so that Exploris can be saved.
“This is about saving services and jobs and affects all the communities around Strangford Lough and the Lecale. These communities depend on the business that flows from local tourism driven by Exploris.
“The DOE has a special role in looking after the Marine Conservation Zone. Therefore we need a long tern strategy for funding and sustainability. I will be pursuing this matter.
‘I just hope that this crisis over Portaferry is not an act of political manipulation from certain quarters. I will work with Jim Shannon MP, my parliamentary colleague, and Ards Councillor Jo Boyle on this to ensure Exploris is saved.”
Ards Councillor Alan McDowell also commented that this was “one of the worst decisions that Ards Borough Council has ever made. O tried to put forward a proposal to keep Exploris open but was unsuccessful. I am ashamed as a councillor at this decision.
“But I am heartened at the response of the public to backing Exploris. We do need help from the NI Executive on this issue. I just canniot understand from a financial, educational or environmental position that the councillors could justify this decision to close Exploris. I therefore urge you to continue your fight.”
Also speaking, Councillor Joe Boyle said: “For those who can remember Portaferry prior to 28 years ago when Exploris opened and boosted the town’s economy, Portaferry was a much poorer place.
“In recent years the main business is done in the town through July and August, and the other months are much leaner. We need these busy months to survive.
“When RPA rolls out in a couple of years, we will see that other Councils will have left a legacy to their communities such as North Down is doing at the moment. This is all really about the Ards penisula.
“If Exploris closes, we lose our flagship and tourism won’t be sustainable and we too will be closed down.”
Strangford MP Jim Shannon also expressed his support for Exploris and said: “I agree regional funding is needed. All the relevant departments have a role to play in this. DARD for example funds the Loughs Agency visitor centre in Londonderry.
“DETI ios repsonsible for NI tourism and the Department of Education too has a role to play. Even DCAl has involved itself in a salmon project at Bushmills. The DOE manage the marine environment centrally crucial to all of this.
“Exploris is certainly among the top ten tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. This project now needs new enthisiasm, investment and and a
clear strategy for the way forward.
Paidraig Mulholland, Preseident of NIPSA added that “we have to send out a strong message that there will be no public service cuts. Expoloris plays a huge role in the region and the Assembly should be proud of the work that is being done there. Closure should not be an option.
“Basically, if all politicians support the campaign then you have won! I therefore welcome all parties to show a united front on this problem. We do not want a half way hous where Exploris is not properly funded. We need proper funding so that we are not back here in a few years facing the same problem. Let’s ensure that Porteferry gets what it needs from the NI Executive.”
Ms Helena Challonor, Exploris Manager, speaking following the meeting, was encouraged saying that it was good to see the level of support from the community and local businesses towards the aquarium facility. “Last weekend we were quite busy with visitor numbers up which is good. We had applied for grant funding but as the future of Exploris was insecure we lost £400,00 in the public procurement exercise… that opportunity fell away and we are left with a need to find funding now to keep Exploris open.”
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