The Ulster Unionist leader was commenting following Thursday’s announcement that the former Royal Navy light battle cruiser – now part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) collection – will not reopen to the public until 2021 due to a funding shortfall.
The Belfast visitor attraction has been closed since March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
NMRN said it operates the ship seeking to cover costs, but if there is any shortfall then Stormont’s Department for the Economy (DfE) guarantees to pay the excess. That agreement has now expired, leaving responsibility for the ship’s operation with the DfE.
Despite the Covid-19 lockdown leaving a £6.35 million deficit in NMRN coffers, the museum’s other sites across the UK will reopen as planned after an emergency support agreement was reached with the UK Treasury.
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Mr Aiken said it “beggars belief” that minister Diane Dodds will close the ship for six months – resulting in staff being laid off – at the “same time as her own department attempts to maintain and bolster our NI tourism and visitor attractions”.
Mr Aiken added: “It is regrettable that rather being part of a globally leading set of maritime attractions in Belfast’s historic Titanic Quarter, 2021 will probably be marked by HMS Caroline being towed away to Portsmouth – not the start to Northern Ireland’s centenary year we hoped for.”
Dominic Tweddle, director general for the NMRN, said: “This is a desperate situation for the Museum and especially for our incredibly dedicated team at HMS Caroline. Since Covid-19 hit in March, our trustees and I have been working tirelessly to financially secure all of our sites. The support which was confirmed by HM Treasury this week was a welcome relief, but it does not alter our position in Belfast.”
Mr Tweddle added: “We have liaised exhaustively with DfE and continue to do so in the hope that we could still reopen HMS Caroline alongside our sites across the UK. We are fortunate that we have a few weeks of being able to support staff’s salaries under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme whilst we continue to fight to secure the future of the ship and its team.
“However, if we are not able to sway DfE from its current position then HMS Caroline will not reopen until 2021 and those jobs will have to be made redundant”.
A DfE spokeswoman said the minister “recognises the huge importance of HMS Caroline as part of our maritime history” and the importance of “remembering and honouring the sacrifices made by those who served”.
She described visitor numbers to date as “disappointing,” and added: “The department has been concerned about these deficits for some time and has been working closely with NMRN...to attempt to make the attraction more profitable,
The DfE said it has already made a substantial interim payment to NMRN to help with cashflow, but stressed that no deficits were expected to occur untial 2022/2023.
“The [DfE] has also advised NMRN that it will meet agreed costs associated with this period of temporary closure, which include salary costs of two members of staff who will be maintaining and overseeing the ship during this time. The remainder of the HMSC staff are currently on furlough through the Job Retention Scheme,” the spokeswoman added.