Leading article

Editorial: Urgent action needed by Stormont to save vital community services

Another catastrophic example of the fantasies peddled by Brexiteers meeting reality is looming for our community sector, with dozens of groups facing imminent closure unless either Westminster or Stormont acts urgently.

EU withdrawal means that money once provided by a scheme called the European Social Fund finishes at the end of this month. The ESF has, among other things, offered valuable support for vocational skills training and employment projects.

In Northern Ireland this was administered and distributed by Stormont departments, which also provided funding of their own targeted at employability services.

The Vote Leave side of the Brexit argument offered confident assurances that the ESF money would be replaced by funding from Westminster.

But as with other such promises – £350 million a week extra for the NHS being a memorably dishonest and cynical example – post-Brexit fulfilment has proved elusive.

The British government has set up a 'UK Shared Prosperity Fund' to replace the EU support with the goal of 'levelling up' and creating opportunity "for people and places".

However, the new arrangements have left Northern Ireland's community sector facing a cliff edge because they are far less generous than the EU-supported fund.

The Community Sector Peer Group, NICVA, CO3 and the NI Union of Supported Employment, which together represent more than 1,000 community organisations, says the sector "feels abandoned by the political process and civil servants in London and Belfast".

Already, 1,700 staff employed by 67 different organisations have been put on notice of redundancy. Employability services which help more than 18,000 marginalised people each year will have to be either discontinued or drastically cut.

Local departments have declined to replace the £13 million they previously provided, while the Shared Prosperity Fund is at best only a partial replacement for the outgoing ESF programme.

Rev Andrew Irvine, who chairs the Community Sector Peer Group, has rightly described the situation as a scandal and accused Stormont and Westminster of deciding "by their inaction to decimate services which help disadvantaged people get off benefits and into employment".

Mr Irvine acknowledges that Westminster has shown "some flexibility" but says that "the lack of purposeful engagement from our local departments has been extremely disappointing".

A pledge signed by 65 MLAs is asking the Stormont departments to do more. That should, of course, happen. But MLAs could help by going back to work themselves. It's yet another example of why the DUP needs to end its illogical Stormont boycott, and how its continued stymieing of power-sharing is manifestly harming people.

Leading article