Rathlin’s only Visitors Centre could be closed for the whole of 2014.
The RSPB advised Rathlin Community Development Group of their intentions to close the centre above Bull Point lighthouse during a recent meeting.
The closure is to facilitate the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who own the centre and the lighthouse, to carry out refurbishment and improvement works. Irish Lights have been awarded around half a million pounds sterling from the EU Intereg Fund to carry out this work on Rathlin.
NI Environment Agency has also a stake in the site and owns some of the land surrounding and leading to the Visitor Centre which is leased by RSPB.
Moyle Councillor Joan Baird only learned of the imminent closure last week and has contacted Peter Harper of the RSPB and advised him of the seriousness of this decision.
In particular, she pointed to the fact that the economy of Rathlin depends heavily on visitors to see the famous bird colony, in fact over 12,000 visitors arrived at the Centre in 2013.
Cllr Baird said: “This is our only inhabited island and I am astounded and shocked at the approach taken by Irish Lights and indeed the RSPB.
“I have spoken on the phone to Peter Harper of RSPB and emphasised that his actions will cause hardship to Islanders and indeed people in Ballycastle who receive spin off from tourists travelling to Rathlin.
“If tourists and potential visitors are not able to look over and view the puffins, guillemots and razor bills it will have a devastating effect on the Island and its inhabitants.
“The closure will affect the ferries, there will be little need for the buses up to the Centre, which is also used by local passengers, less visitors will be calling into the pub, cafe or buying food and crafts.
“Many islanders may not even survive without the annual tourism boost which the visitors centre helps to generate.”
Cllr Baird, who is also a member of the RSBP, went on to say she was pleased that much needed improvements were to take place at the Seabird Centre and she hoped the investment would benefit local contractors and suppliers.
However she said that local people mattered and must not be treated in a cavalier and high handed manner.
She added: “RSPB and Irish Lights have taken this action completely without consultation with elected representatives and as such it is high handed and punitive. I believe the decision was made already without even a thought of a temporary place being set up to ensure that the community would not be cut off.
“I have asked RSPB to reconsider their actions in the hope that a solution to accommodate visitors can be achieved.
“Further I intend to take this matter before Council and approach the DOE Ministers both here and in the Republic of Ireland.
“Loss of tourism and the attendant revenue at a time when local people are already under extreme financial pressure it is simply not acceptable to remove a fundamental attraction.”
In response to Cllr Baird’s comments regarding the Lighthouse project at Rathlin, the Commissioners of Irish Lights said: “The Commissioners of Irish Lights has been in correspondence with RDCA since early December and has invited RDCA representatives to meet in January to discuss community concerns about the lighthouse project.
“RSPB met with RDCA in early December after which it agreed with CIL to hold further discussions with RDCA and relevant tourism and development agencies.
“The purpose of these discussions is to determine how best to develop the new visitor facility in line with statutory rules and regulations while at the same time avoiding negative impacts on tourism business to Rathlin during 2014.”