Mental health charity told by NIO to quit Hillsborough Castle premises
A mental health charity has been told by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) it must leave premises in the grounds of Hillsborough Castle.
Sixteen people with learning difficulties are employed in a market garden and coffee shop run by the mental health charity, Praxis.
The charity was given the use of a corner of the Hillsborough estate nine years ago by the NIO.
The NIO said the charity was told of the decision over a year ago.
Praxis said it had invested £400,000 in improvements since moving to the site.
William McAllister from Praxis said: "To date, there has been no offer of compensation and no clear indication at all that we are in fact going to be compensated for all of the work that we have done in Hillsborough Castle.
"But we hold out hope that there will be some opportunity for us to properly negotiate with the Northern Ireland Office."
People with special needs travel from various parts of Northern Ireland to work there.
Centre manager Vanessa Coulter said: "It gives people a purpose, you know? People that have been in hospital for years, that have no confidence, no assertiveness skills, this is fundamental to how they develop as an adult with learning disability.
"It really is gutting. I can't believe that it's come to this."
The charity has been asked to leave as part of a new arrangement for the management of Hillsborough Castle.
Secretary of State Teresa Villiers was unavailable for interview, but in a statement the NIO said the charity was told of the decision to go more than a year ago.
"The NIO believes Praxis has had sufficient time to identify new premises to move to, and to prepare its clients for the move," it said.
"Praxis has operated at Hillsborough at extremely generous rent for around 10 years and has had significant financial assistance from the NIO in developing the site.
"The NIO has been in discussion with Praxis about the way forward for well over a year now.
"Praxis is a large organisation with a number of other sites and it is their responsibility - under the terms of their contracts with all five health trusts - to prepare their clients for withdrawal from Hillsborough.
"The NIO has been clear throughout the period of Praxis' licence that no expenditure will be repaid when they vacate."
Hillsborough Castle is the royal residence in Northern Ireland.
Since 1972, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has been responsible for the day-to-day running of the Hillsborough Castle estate.
Last year, it was announced that in future the estate would be run by the charity, Historic Royal Palaces.
The government said it would operate on a more cost-effective basis, reducing the cost to the taxpayer.
Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.
The castle's transition will being in April 2014. Many of the changes will not take effect for two or three years.