Gordon Lyons said agreement has been reached with partners the Portsmouth-based National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to keep the historic attraction in Belfast until at least 2038.
The vessel is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and has been located in Belfast since 1924.
She first opened as a visitor attraction in Belfast in 2016, but has remained closed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – and there had been talk of her moving to Portsmouth.
Following agreement between all parties, the attraction will reopen in the late summer of 2022.
Last year staff were said to be in limbo due to a ‘dithering’ Northern Irish government not making a decision on the issue.
Mr Lyons described the ship as a ‘very important cultural and heritage visitor attraction’, adding that securing its future in Belfast has been his priority for some time.
‘HMS Caroline further enhances our maritime heritage assets and adds to the tourism offer for both Belfast and Northern Ireland. I look forward to the attraction welcoming visitors again soon and helping this area of Belfast to become even more vibrant,’ he said.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy owns HMS Caroline and will continue to operate the vessel for the foreseeable future.
NMRN director general Professor Dominic Tweddle said the closure of the attraction two years ago was ‘heart breaking for all at the museum’”.
‘It has remained our fervent desire to secure a sustainable future that will enable us to continue to conserve and maintain her; with the aim to once again share her story with the people of Belfast, and the millions of tourists that visit Northern Ireland every year,’ he said.
‘With this agreement now secured, we can plan a future for the ship and look once again to welcome visitors to her later this year.’
Ulster Unionist MLAs Andy Allen, Steve Aiken and Mike Nesbitt welcomed the development.
Mr Aiken, a Royal Navy veteran, said he started his career on HMS Caroline.
“The ship is not only the last historic legacy of the Battle of Jutland in the First World War, it also has a very special place in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland due to the near century she has been moored in Belfast,” he said.
‘My own 32-year Royal Naval career began on HMS Caroline and today is a proud day for both HMS Caroline and for Northern Ireland.
‘After many years of negotiation behind the scenes, we have seen that the Economy department has, at long last, stepped up to secure the future of this great ship.
‘We are looking forward to the ship reopening and it becoming a central part of Belfast’s maritime mile.’