Claire Simpson: Social Investment Fund debacle shows it's not what you know, it's who you know

Leading loyalist and former CEO of Charter NI Dee Stitt. Picture by Mal McCann
Leading loyalist and former CEO of Charter NI Dee Stitt. Picture by Mal McCann

"Never ask of money spent/ Where the spender thinks it went," the American poet Robert Frost wrote.

In the case of the highly-criticised Social Investment Fund (SIF), no one seemed to ask where £79 million of public money actually went.

Revelations about the mismanagement of our public finances are like buses. Just weeks after the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry finished hearing oral evidence, a new Audit Office report highlighted widespread flaws in the governance of the controversial community fund.

SIF was established by then First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in 2011 to help disadvantaged areas.

Overseen by the Executive Office, the fund aimed to support community projects across Northern Ireland. Half of the money was supposed to be set aside for capital projects including new community buildings, the other half was due to cover key schemes including ones which helped people return to employment.

On paper it sounded like a good idea to give greater power to communities. But those who designed the scheme either did not fully appreciate the north's particular circumstances or chose to ignore them.

We have a relatively large community sector, run by volunteers and staff who earn very little money for the hard work they do.

But inevitably, given our small population, the same people in the same areas end up being involved in the same projects.

Conflicts of interest could have been predicted from the very start. Some of those who sat on steering groups which helped decide where the money should go also had links to groups which were being awarded funding.

It's akin to asking foxes if they should be involved in inspecting hen houses.

Take the DUP's Robin Newton, who sat on the East Belfast SIF steering group which recommended that Charter NI should be awarded £1.7 million for an employability scheme. This is the same Charter NI that Mr Newton gave advice to and sat in on its board meetings; the same Charter NI then headed by loyalist Dee Stitt who was later arrested by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force.

Giving communities greater control of how to improve their own areas is a noble idea. But it completely ignores our reality.

The legacy of the Troubles has still left us as a highly divided society. And in some areas, a few groups hold huge power and influence, effectively carving up mini fiefdoms. All community groups are equal but some community groups are more equal than others.

It's debatable whether the Executive Office, which is itself a carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Féin, was the best department to oversee the scheme.

The Audit Office report found the Executive Office did not hold a clear audit trail detailing how the money was awarded. It was unclear why some projects were given money above others or indeed why they were given funds at all.

So far so RHI.

Wider problems with SIF have meant that actual successes, including a project managed by the Falls Community Council which has helped young people avoid getting involved in crime, have been overshadowed. The Falls project is exactly the sort that SIF was supposed to support.

Yet other projects appear to have been managed so badly they were of little benefit to their communities.

It's baffling that a £3.3m training and employment project in west Belfast - still one of the north's most deprived areas - could find so few people to take part that a large proportion of those involved were neither from the area nor long-term unemployed.

How much effort was expended in reaching those in west Belfast most in need of help?

It's not enough to throw money at a problem. If there is no paper trail or adequate governance there is no way of quantifying if a project has been successful.

Time and time again during the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry senior civil servants said the first rule of their job was to ensure public finances were spent correctly. Most of those who gave evidence expressed horror and at times shame that this wasn't the case.

What's disturbing is that RHI was presented as the worst case scenario. Yet Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said SIF didn't comply "with the most basic standards of public administration".

Despite the highly-critical report, the DUP and Sinn Féin have defended the scheme and praised SIF for giving communities the power to make decisions.

But then they would say that, wouldn't they? It's almost as if, despite 10 years of power-sharing, we were never properly governed.