Shameful blow to vulnerable groups

Brexit has been an enduring disaster for all sections of our society but inevitably it has been vulnerable and marginalised groups which have suffered most since the EU withdrawal.

The European Social Fund (ESF) provided £40m annually for organisations tackling economic inactivity across Northern Ireland until it came to an end last March and was replaced by a new British government initiative.

However, as a report by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has confirmed, some key organisations lost crucial financial support as what is known as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund was introduced.

The ESF set out to help young people who were not in training, education or employment as well as older individuals, including the disabled, who had difficulty getting jobs.

According to the ETI report, projects funded by ESF raised "confidence, employability, self-esteem and self-worth" among those involved as well as providing practical support, assistance and advocacy.

The report said: "The high quality of the provision for care and welfare impacted positively on the participants' readiness for learning, development and ultimately sustained employment."

There can only be huge concern that this vital work was undermined by uncertainty over future planning, causing doubts over the retention of skilled staff, and the report was specific about the cause of the problems.

It concluded that "...the political vacuum at Stormont, the lack of an executive and assembly, and Brexit, all had a significant adverse and negative impact" for the organisations in question.

Northern Ireland voted decisively in the 2016 referendum to remain in the EU so it remains grossly unfair that Brexit was imposed on the region.

It is astonishing that many senior DUP figures who campaigned so strongly on the leave side are still failing to accept the consequences of their actions.

They also initially endorsed the protocol arrangements which were certain to follow Brexit, only to revise their position after being pressurised by fringe loyalist elements and eventually engage in an entirely ludicrous boycott of our power-sharing institutions for the last 20 months.

There are clear indications that the DUP has increasingly come to realise the folly of its stance, and would like to engineer a return to Stormont, but the damage which has already been caused in terms of our health and educational structures as well as the economy is almost incalculable.

While the loss of the European Social Fund may have been overshadowed by the wider developments, it was still a shameful episode.