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Department admits community halls scheme weighted towards Protestants

Former communities minister Paul Givan

A STORMONT department has admitted that a community hall scheme is weighted in favour of the Protestant community.

The admission is contained in a revised equality screening document published by the Department for Communities (DfC) last week.

The Community Halls Pilot Programme was launched by former first minister Arlene Foster and communities minister Paul Givan during a visit to an Orange hall last year.

The Irish News has learned that a screening document said the scheme, which has been criticised by nationalists, is expected “to have a positive impact on people of a Protestant religious belief”.

The document also reveals that DfC officials believe that the policy “is not expected to provide further opportunities to better promote good relations between people of different religious belief”.

However, the department said “any impact is expected to be positive in that the funding will help improve access to the facilities in community halls across Northern Ireland”.

Described as a ‘section 75 screening form', the document said the community hall programme was designed to prioritise “low capacity” organisations and “organisations that have not attracted previous funding”.

It claims that some “faith based” groups, including the Orange Order, do not to apply for lottery funds because “this is regarded as benefitting from gambling”.

While it had an initial budget of £500,000, the cost of the programme has since spiralled to £1.9million.

It has also emerged that 34 Orange halls and two Masonic halls are among the 90 successful applicants to the scheme.

Just two Ancient Order of Hibernian halls have been awarded cash through the scheme, which offered grants up to £25,000 for the upgrade of community halls.

A similar number of GAA clubs were successful despite around 60 applications from clubs affiliated to the association.

In total 58 of successful applications to the scheme are from groups “perceived” to be Protestant while just nine were from Catholic organisations.

Mr Givan has previously branded criticism of him and the scheme as "narrow minded sectarianism".

Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) deputy director Daniel Holder said the screening document “implies that the funding criteria around not having received lottery monies were designed to prioritise groups in this category.”

“It would be right and proper to prioritise community halls resources towards mostly male-run Protestant faith-based groups if that is where most objective need lies - however none of the documents produced by the department to date provide any evidence that this is the case,” he said.

“It is also unclear why the department had not mentioned this was their approach until now and why the fund, if targetting community centres most in objective need, did not just stick to things like state of disrepair as its criteria."

A spokeswoman for the department said the equality screening exercise had concluded that the scheme “will have no adverse impact on any Section 75 category”.

“Any impact is expected to be positive in that the funding will help improve access to the facilities in community halls across Northern Ireland,” she said.

“It has been updated to reflect the available information following an analysis of the 861 applications received.”

SDLP assembly member John Dallat criticised the department's approach.

“To put forward the notion that Protestants don't apply to the lottery is a poor excuse for the failure of the scheme to reach out to all the community,” he said.

And he added: “This type of gravy train, no matter what side they benefit, has to stop leaving Stormont.

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