Northern Ireland

Eleventh hour announcement due on replacement of EU funds

Community Sector Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine
Community Sector Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine Community Sector Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine

FUNDING for groups who help the long-term unemployed is expected to be confirmed by the British government.

The money, which replaces EU funds that ceased after Brexit, will be in the region of £57 million over the next two years.

But the timing of the eleventh hour announcement, which comes on the last day of the financial year and follows weeks of uncertainty, has been widely criticised.

Groups tasked with improving vulnerable people's employment prospects have had staff on redundancy notice for months.

Meanwhile, some of the groups in the sector may learn on Friday that their funding applications have been unsuccessful.

The funds expected to be pledged by the Department for Levelling Up are greater than the £42m originally earmarked for scores of projects under the NI Economic Inactivity competition. However, where previously money from the European Social Fund was matched by Stormont, this is no longer the case.

The successful projects will be able to start spending the funding from this next month once their agreements have been finalised.

But Rev Andrew Irvine from the Easst Belfast Mission and chairman of the Community Sector Peer Group, which represents 22 organisations across the north, said it was "frankly astonishing" that four years after the funding gap had been identified, no replacement money had yet been allocated.

“While the Department for Levelling Up has said that they will make an announcement this week, huge damage has already been caused to the community sector, the staff who will be made redundant today and those who will have their support withdrawn," he said.

“This has gone beyond a failure of government in Westminster and Stormont – it is a moral failing that will make life needlessly more difficult for thousands of our most vulnerable people."

Former Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy said the failure to fully replace lost European funding would lead to the loss of essential services and jobs.

"Cuts to vital community projects and services are a direct result of Brexit and the loss of millions of pounds of European funding," he said.

“The British government promised to fully replace that funding – they have broken that promise to the many vulnerable and disadvantaged people that these services protect."

SDLP MP Claire Hanna said that while an announcement on the funding was imminent, thousands of service users and staff had been left "desperate for information about their future less than 24 hours before the funding cliff edge".

"It should never have reached this point," the South Belfast representative said.

"Unfortunately it is also clear that replacement funds are unlikely to cover all previous recipients with virtually no consultation with local officials in Northern Ireland."

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir said that for many organisations the announcement "too little, too late".

"With vital initiatives delivered under European Social Fund wound up, staff having left or been made redundant and users already disconnected," he said.

"It is nothing short of a disgrace that citizens and third sector groups in Northern Ireland have been still left hanging with vague promises of jam tomorrow just as the clock ticks down to midnight."