My Lords, in Northern Ireland Hillsborough Castle is the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen and has been the sovereign’s residence since 1922. The castle is also the residence of the Secretary of State and of the Minister for Northern Ireland. Current proposals are to pass the operation of Hillsborough Castle to Historic Royal Palaces and significantly to increase public access. However, full royal and ceremonial use will continue unchanged.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for telling the House about the important decision to place Hillsborough in the guardianship of the Historic Royal Palaces trust. Does not the existence of a permanent royal residence both symbolise and underline the enduring commitment of the Royal Family to all sections of the community in this part of our country—a commitment perhaps best expressed by the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who once told my noble friend Lord Molyneaux that each night she included in her prayers, “God Bless Ulster”? Does my noble friend also agree that it is most fitting that the decision should come in the year that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales celebrated his 65th birthday, for the cross-community work of his many charitable organisations contributes significantly to progress in Northern Ireland today?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the Royal Family is to be commended for its loyalty and for the work that it has done with Northern Ireland. We all remember the significance almost two years ago of the Queen’s handshake. The existence of Hillsborough Castle as a royal residence is guaranteed under the new arrangements, and full facilities for royal access will be there. It will be easy for members of the Royal Family to use the castle when they wish for their royal duties in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, given the extraordinary—indeed, transformational—effect of Her Majesty’s visit to the Republic of Ireland, and the fact that Hillsborough Castle is not only a royal residence but a place of enormous political significance on the island of Ireland because of the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement and the importance of other negotiations, there is a real possibility of tourist potential not just from within Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, but that many people south of the border will be keen to come to Hillsborough Castle for its associations with Her Majesty and the Royal Family, as well as the important political associations that it also has?
My Lords, the intention is that the new arrangements will make it easier to attract both domestic and foreign tourists to visit Hillsborough Castle. It is important to remember that as well as being a beautiful castle—a beautiful building with beautiful grounds—it has tremendous historic significance. It is important to remember that royal tourism alone is estimated to be worth £500 million a year to the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is important that we open up the castle as much as possible—and considerably more than has been possible in the past.
My Lords, in welcoming the Minister’s reply, I will ask her two questions. Firstly, Hillsborough Castle is owned by the Northern Ireland Office. When is it anticipated that it will be transferred to the Historic Royal Palaces trust, and will any additional trustees, including a trustee from Northern Ireland, be added to the trust board?
There will be no change to the ownership of Hillsborough Castle. An agreement will be signed with Historic Royal Palaces. It is anticipated, following negotiations, that it will be signed next April, but there will be a transition period of two to three years before the full handover to the new arrangements is complete. On the question of trustees, a Northern Ireland group already exists in relation to Hillsborough Castle. It is intended that this should be refreshed and set up anew under the new arrangements. It will have a strong representation from Northern Ireland, as well as trustees appointed by Her Majesty the Queen.
Does my noble friend accept that if Scotland votes for independence, the future of Balmoral must be called into question? Would that situation not make it even more important that there is a royal residence in Northern Ireland?
My Lords, along with many of your Lordships, I am concentrating on supporting the Better Together campaign. I am not making plans, and neither are my noble friends, for any future situation in Balmoral.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the fact that she is able to make this announcement today reverses the great historic error of the 19th century in not having a royal residence in Ireland, and that it can only be done because of the stability brought to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as a result of the Good Friday agreement of 1998?
Hillsborough has been in its current situation since about 1922, I believe, but the noble Lord makes a very good point. It is the stability of the political situation that has made it possible for the Northern Ireland Office to consider new arrangements for the management of Hillsborough Castle, and to ensure at the same time that security levels are maintained. That will be possible under the new arrangements because of the security and political situation.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of Historic Royal Palaces. Will the Minister confirm that there has been very widespread consultation both within Northern Ireland and in Ireland itself, and that the experience of Historic Royal Palaces in running five additional palaces in the United Kingdom gives the charity great experience? I hope that the Minister will also agree that we can have every confidence that this will be a successful and prominent move for the future that will make the castle more available to all people, both tourists and local residents.
I am delighted to confirm that the Northern Ireland Office sought a secure and prosperous future for Hillsborough, and one that would enable it to be opened up to the public. Historic Royal Palaces was the obvious choice, because as an organisation it does not depend on public money and it has a very well established position through the five palaces it already runs. Indeed, it is the case that the Royal Family has already signed an agreement with Historic Royal Palaces about the future use of Hillsborough Castle.