Irish cultural centre threatened in sell-off

 

A MULTIMILLION pound sell-off of properties by a Conservative-controlled local authority in London faced with crippling debts is threatening the future of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, it has emerged.

The centre’s home is one of nine properties to be sold by Hammersmith and Fulham council in London, even though the council had agreed in January 2009 to grant a five-year lease to the centre from April 2012.

However, the local authority has said it is willing to sell the building – which was built by the then-Labour-controlled council in 1994 to house the centre in 1994 and opened officially at that time by Ireland’s then minister for foreign affairs Dick Spring – to the centre, but “at the market price”, a spokesman said yesterday.

Expressing disappointment at the decision of Hammersmith and Fulham, Jim O’Hara, the chairman of the board of trustees of the centre – the only one of its type in the United Kingdom, said: “This fait accompli is completely unexpected and has come as a major shock.”

A fundraising campaign will be launched to buy the building, which, he said, offers an opportunity to acquire “a wonderful facility” which “would be held in perpetuity for the Irish community” and ensure high-quality Irish cultural events for future generations. It has been visited in recent months by President Mary McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson.

Irish Ambassador to London Bobby McDonagh has been in discussions in recent days with the local authority. Last night, an Embassy spokesman said: “The Embassy is very disappointed to have been informed that Hammersmith Council does not intend to extend the current lease. The Government strongly hopes that a solution can be found which will allow the Centre to continue its valuable work,” it said, adding that the Irish State has given significant sums to fund the centre’s “excellent” work in recent years.

Defending the decision to sell, Joe Carlebach, cabinet member for community services, said the council has a £133 million debt, a £5 million annual interest bill and must cut £55 million from its spending over the next three years. “This means that we can simply no longer afford for taxpayers to pick up an annual bill of £161,000 to subsidise this building,” said Mr Carlebach.