Northern Ireland

Windmill café run by people with disabilities at risk of closure

The Ability Café near Ballycopeland Windmills opened less than two years ago

Ballycopeland Windmill's new staff: Jim Frame, Pietro Amarello, Simon Dobson, John Lyttle, Beth Hagan and Courtney Wilson.
Ballycopeland Windmill's ability cafe is set to close on March 31 Ability Cafe

A café that employs people with disabilities in Millisle, Co Down, could face closure due to funding issues.

The Ability Cafe at Ballycopeland Windmills has been operating near the historic landmark for almost two years and was part of a regeneration project costing over £1.7m.

The cafe is run by Ulster Supported Employment (USEL), which is a charity that focuses on social enterprises that help to get people with disabilities or health conditions into employment.

Scott Jackson, chief executive of USEL, said the cafe at the heritage site is set to close on March 31 if £165,000 in funding is not secured.

Funding is provided by the Department for Communities and a new agreement has not been reached.

The cafe employs eight people - three permanent staff and five casual employees. Mr Jackson said he did not want to upset staff or feel stressed about job security.

The Ballycopeland windmill, which is Northern Ireland’s only such working site, underwent refurbishment in 2020, along with the café, a new access road and parking.

Ards and North Down UUP councillor Pete Wray said he thinks all is not lost for the cafe, which has already seen significant investment.

“It would be a waste of public money if nothing was done with it now,” Mr Wray said.

“Up to now, there has been some success with the cafe,” he added.

“All is not lost, there is a potential that it could be saved.”

All cafe employees were given the option to transfer to another Ability Cafe and, among the permanent staff, two have opted for redeployment.

“For the one permanent staff member who has chosen not to transfer, and the casual staff, we are dedicated to aiding their transition into new employment opportunities,” Mr Jackson said.

Ards and North Down council said it is not directly involved in talks with the department and it has been advised that “no decision has been taken to close the windmill or cafe”.

“Ulster Supported Employment Limited (Usel) has been operating the heritage site since the windmill reopened in May 2022, providing employability opportunities to people with disabilities. During 2023/24, it emerged that Usel could no longer continue to service the windmill and Ability café at Ballycopeland without being subsidised. However, due to budget uncertainty beyond this year, the department has not been in a position to commit to providing a subsidy.

“Unfortunately, this has meant that Usel cannot renew their Service Level Agreement with the department to continue their Ballycopeland operation beyond 31 March 2024. Minister Lyons has directed Historic Environment Division (HED) to bring forward recommendations as soon as possible on how best to maintain access to this important heritage asset.”

The Department for Communities has been contacted.