Campaigners trying to save Northern Ireland’s only aquarium last night expressed delight at news that funds have been found to keep it open.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan announced that the Stormont Executive has secured the cash and that it is now up to Ards Borough Council to reverse its original decision to shut the loss-making Portaferry facility down.
The news was greeted with joy by those who have spent most of the last year lobbying for Exploris to be retained.
Elaine Roddy, secretary of the Friends of Exploris, laughed and said: “We’re delighted. All credit to Mark Durkan, I have to say. It seems definitive to us, and we’re taking it that way.”
The saga began last September, when the decision was taken by the council to close down the publicly-run facility on the edge of Strangford Lough, which is also linked to a seal sanctuary.
The move provoked an outcry, and closure was deferred while efforts were made to find an alternative solution.
Friends of Exploris has campaigned ever since for its retention and Mrs Roddy, 49 and from Portaferry, described rafts of meetings, e-mails and letters to which they had devoted their time.
She thanked all those involved in the campaign and said the closure “would have been devastating for Portaferry, and had a knock-on effect on Strangford and the surrounding area”.
Yesterday’s statement from Mr Durkan said: “I very much welcome the fact the Executive has accepted my proposal that capital funding is provided to update the facilities at Exploris and keep it open.
“It is excellent news for all the supporters of Exploris, both near and far, and particularly for the people of Portaferry... Now that I have secured Executive funding, I trust that Ards Borough Council will be able to reverse its recent decision to close this wonderful facility.”
He had already agreed funding for the seal sanctuary.
However, he did not go into detail about the sum now being made available, or what specifically it will be used for.
Marine biologist Dr Julia Sigwart, also involved with Friends of Exploris and from Portaferry, said she looked forward to finding out what the long term plans are.
When it came to the new cash, she added: “It is a tribute to how much everybody in Northern Ireland and further afield has come out in force to say: ‘Everybody loves Exploris’.”
However, the facility does have detractors.
UKIP MLA for Strangford David McNarry had said it should close because it was too much of a drain on the public purse, and that it contained “dull fish” from local waters, rather than more compelling and exotic species.
Ards Mayor Philip Smyth said a meeting has been convened for next Thursday, and he expects the council to rule that it should be kept open.
He believes the sum involved is roughly £950,000.