HMS Caroline and staff in limbo due to 'dithering' Northern Ireland government, says National Museum of the Royal Navy boss
THE government of Northern Ireland has been told to stop ‘dithering’ over the future of a closed historic Royal Navy attraction, which won’t reopen as restrictions lift next week.
HMS Caroline which saw service in the First World War and is run by the Portsmouth-based National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), was closed in March last year due to the Covid-19 crisis.
But the attraction in Belfast will not be reopening next week when easing restrictions allow for indoor hospitality to resume across Northern Ireland.
Its closure is due to ongoing talks between the museum and the devolved government, which had been paying for excess costs to maintain the 106-year-old warship.
With a previous agreement over funding expired and talks over a new agreement proceeding slowly, politicians need to ‘stop dithering’ and secure the ship’s future, according to Captain John Rees, head of staff at the NMRN.
He said: ‘We continue to work with (Northern Ireland’s government) to effect a solution for HMS Caroline.
‘The big issue is that it’s up to the politicians to stop dithering. HMS Caroline’s future is ultimately up to a political decision. And the political position is febrile at the moment.’
The political situation in Northern Ireland has been rocked by the ousting of first minister Arlene Foster last month and the resignation of the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party earlier this month.
The museum boss added: ‘The frustration is the difficulty in engaging with them. Of course, they would say they have bigger fish to fry.’
Staff at the site remain on furlough, with some workers moving on to other employment due to long-standing uncertainty of the situation, according to Captain Rees.
He said: ‘My understanding is that the furlough scheme will continue until September.’
He added that even if a decision were forthcoming from the government, it would take several weeks to ensure the attraction is ready to welcome back guests.
He said: ‘When we opened our other sites back in 2020, there was about five or six weeks planning to be able to achieve that.
‘We haven’t been able to do the same amount of preparatory work.’
Last year saw speculation that HMS Caroline could be towed to Portsmouth if an agreement to keep her in Belfast was not reached.
Cpt Rees said it remained a possibility: ‘HMS Caroline would undoubtedly be an asset. We could see coming out of left field interest from other areas. HMS Caroline was built in Liverpool – but more probably she would come to Portsmouth, if that was the end game.’
HMS Caroline, a light cruiser that took part in the Battle of Jutland, has been docked in Belfast since 1924.