Northern Ireland news

Equality Commission investigates DUP run schemes

Former communities minister Paul Givan
Connla Young

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THE Equality Commission has launched an investigation into funding decisions made by a DUP run Stormont department.

The commission revealed last night that it is probing decisions by the Department for Communities (DfC) relating to the Community Halls Pilot Programme and the Líofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme.

A spokesman for the commission said the “investigation will consider whether the department has complied with its equality scheme commitments relating to screening and equality impact assessment”.

Both schemes were introduced by former communities minister and DUP assembly member Paul Givan.

Concerns about the community halls pilot scheme were first raised earlier this year when the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) requested a copy of its equality screening template.

After initially receiving no response a screening document later appeared on the department's website after CAJ made a complaint.

When concerns were raised about the document a review was launched resulting in a revised report being produced.

The department said the equality screening exercise was not carried out before the halls scheme was launched “due to an oversight by departmental officials”.

According to the Equality Commission's website the “purpose of screening is to identify those policies that are likely to have an impact on equality of opportunity and/or good relations”.

The revised equality screening document published by DfC confirmed that the scheme was expected “to have a positive impact on people of a Protestant religious belief”.

The 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 Equality Commission is also investigating the Liofa Gaeltacht Bursaries Scheme.

There was widespread anger in nationalist circles when the former DUP minister ended the £55,000 bursary scheme, which provided small grants for people from disadvantaged backgrounds who wanted to learn Irish, days before Christmas last year.

It later emerged that Stormont officials had told Mr Givan that the advantages of running an Irish language bursary scheme were “many” days before he dropped the axe on the scheme.

It later reported that no equality screening had been carried out before the scheme was axed.

The scheme was later reinstated.

Deputy director of the CAJ Daniel Holder raised concerns about both matters with the commission.

He claimed the organisation had identified 19 different breaches of the department's equality scheme in relation to the community halls programme alone and asked the Equality Commission to use its enforcement powers.

“In this context we welcome the Equality Commissions decision to launch an investigation into the Community Halls and Líofa bursaries programmes.”

The decision to investigate the department was taken in April and is being taken under legislation which “empowers the Equality Commission to conduct an investigation where it believes that a public authority may have failed to comply with its approved equality scheme”.

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin, from Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge, welcomed the probe into the Liofa scheme.

"This cross-community, means-tested, scheme was launched to provide learning opportunities for young people, the most disadvantaged young people in our society," he said.

"This was not just an attack on the Irish-language, but on those young people who wished to access funding to facilitate immersion learning opportunities in the Gaeltacht."

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