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Fears for 1,600 jobs and services for thousands amid executive funding uncertainty

Andrew Irvine, chief executive of East Belfast Mission. Picture by Hugh Russell

MORE than 1,600 jobs and services for thousands of vulnerable people will be in jeopardy if executive funding is not agreed by the end of next month, charity bosses have warned.

Around 67 groups who work with around 17,000 people across the north rely on millions of pounds from the EU's European Structural Fund (ESF) programme.

But this money is only given if the executive provides 'match funding'.

The match funding, which is yet to be agreed by the Department for the Economy, will run out at the end of next month.

And there are serious concerns that the instability at Stormont, following the resignation of Paul Givan as first minister last week, could hamper any agreement.

Around 20 groups have written to Economy Minister Gordon Lyons to highlight their concerns.

Andrew Irvine, chief executive of East Belfast Mission (EBM), told The Irish News the funds are used by groups "to reach some of the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach members of our community and give them practical day-to-day help".

EBM uses the money in an employment project and to help people with disabilities.

"Even through Covid, in the last 12 months we have 130 people who were long-term unemployed who are now back into paid work," he said.

Mr Irvine said ESF funds are contingent on funding from the assembly.

"ESF has always funded 65 per cent of the cost of providing services," he said.

"Thirty-five per cent of the money has to be matched by national funds - for us that means the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"For the financial year starting on April 1, ESF funds, which we have been offered, are £42.8 million (across all 67 groups).

"But that £42.8 million goes back to Europe if we can't spend it because we can't get the match funding."

He said some match funds had been agreed by the Department of Health and several councils.

But he said £9.1 million still needs to be agreed.

"We think there's a solution because from what we understand from the finance minister the money is there, that £9.1 million is available," he said.

But he said the impasse at Stormont is posing difficulties.

"We are working with Economy Minister Gordon Lyons, Minister (Deirdre) Hargey in the Department for Communities and Finance Minister (Conor) Murphy to try and get a resolution to this.

"Across Northern Ireland, potentially we're looking at 1,600 redundancies in the community sector.

"We're completely apolitical... but we're just saying what is the technical solution to release this money?"

Mr Irvine said the issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

"Service users are extremely nervous that they are going to lose their support," he said.

Stephen Dallas is director of the Bytes Project which helps vulnerable young people who are not in education, employment or training.

Stephen Dallas, director of the Bytes Project

He said although Department for the Economy officials had been "very helpful...this is too close to the wire at the moment.

"It's causing more uncertainty during a deeply uncertain time."

The Department for the Economy was contacted for comment.

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