DUP's defends £1.9m 'community halls' funding grant scheme

Communities minister Paul Givan
Communities minister Paul Givan

DUP communities minister Paul Givan has defended his £1.9m 'community halls' funding scheme after it emerged the majority of successful applicants are from the unionist community.

Mr Givan insisted the initiative was "open to all" and branded criticism of him as "narrow-minded sectarianism".

The minister said he was not involved in the assessment process and was only advised of the successful organisations after they had been notified.

"This scheme was open to all and made no distinction based on the community identity of the organisation," he said.

"As the election campaign starts I refuse to be drawn into a political battle fought by republicans and nationalists as though it was 1690, but will continue to put our people first and act on behalf of everyone."

Originally earmarked as a £500,000 project to help those who run community halls across the north, the cost of the scheme nearly quadrupled to £1.9 million.

A Sunday newspaper reported that among the list of 90 successful applicants were Orange, Royal Black Preceptory and Masonic halls as well as church and community halls and a pipe band.

The Department for Communities has said it received around 850 applications for the Community Halls Pilot Programme.

When the scheme was launched it was unclear if GAA properties would qualify.

The criteria stated that funding could not be used for "sporting infrastructure".

However, there was further confusion on Sunday night after it emerged that two GAA clubs were among successful recipients.

Clonduff GAC in Co Down received £10,500 and Antrim's Erin's Own GAC, Cargin, Co Antrim, have been awarded £30,600.

Barry O’Donnell, who filled out the application form for Erin's Own, last night said that the club wanted to improve lighting and security around its hall.

He said he simply applied for the grant because he was hopeful that some GAA clubs might be considered.

He also believes many potential applicants were not aware of the scheme and says he became aware of it through a colleague at his club.

Two Ancient Order of Hibernian divisions have also received cash including one in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, which has been awarded £25,000.

A handful of Irish language centres received cash including west Belfast drop in centre Crann go Beartha which has pocketed more than £25,600. 

Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey said there was "mounting concern" over why the cost of the scheme had risen to almost £2m.

"I would defy anyone looking at the list to say that it doesn't look like a register of the Orange Order," he said.

"This £1.9m has been handed almost exclusively to one section of the community."

The grant scheme announcement came just weeks after Mr Givan scrapped the £50,000 Líofa bursary scheme which provided grants to children wishing to learn the Irish language.

The bursary scheme was later reinstated.

Mr Maskey suggested the scheme is being used by the DUP to generate support for the party in the wake of the RHI scandal which could cost the public purse up to £600m.

"Public money should be used responsibly to address need rather than attempt to buy support in the wake of the RHI scandal," he said.

He added: "This looks like yet another example of blatant discrimination and the DUP's contempt for the wider public."

A Department for Communites spokeswoman said on Sunday night: “Ninety community halls from across the community were successful in this pilot programme which was developed to provide capital assistance to groups and communities most in need and assist organisations to benefit their community. 

"A total of £1.9 million capital funding will be used for minor works to the halls to improve the fabric of the buildings.

“A robust, transparent and accountable assessment process was followed, with all applications being scored against the stated criteria.

"The criteria considered previous funding, condition of hall, benefits for existing users, potential to attract new users and availability of services within the area.

"Additional capital was identified in the Department's Budget for this financial year which enabled the allocation to be increased to £1.9m. This was a prudent approach.”