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Northern Ireland’s charity sector locked out of funding

It was heartening to learn last week that £330m is to be liberated from dormant bank accounts in Great Britain and redistributed to organisations tackling social injustice throughout the country.

Cash windfalls are hard to come by these days and those working to combat homelessness or poverty are most welcome to this one.

However, it will have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Northern Ireland residents to learn that they will not experience the benefits of the dormant bank and building society accounts act due to the absence of a funding mechanism.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport confirmed that £10m has already been made available to Northern Ireland, with a further £9.2m obtainable over the next two years; however, the inability of the political parties in Northern Ireland to form an executive government will prevent any of that money being distributed.

This comes after Richard Ramsey, chief economist at Ulster Bank revealed that the third sector is coming under increasing pressure due to cuts in public spending, and that 60% of its leaders expect it to shrink over the next three years. Northern Ireland has not yet felt the full impact of the Tory austerity policy but most people working in the community & voluntary sector would agree: it’s in the post.

NI Fundraising founder Neil Irwin said: ‘It is a disgrace that not one penny of dormant accounts funds has been spent in Northern Ireland because the Northern Ireland Assembly has not agreed a delivery mechanism in the nine years since the act was passed.

‘Four executive ministers have announced the scheme on four occasions, but still no scheme has been established. What is key now is that the charity and social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland should have a new opportunity to consult on both urgent and longer-term priorities for spend. In my opinion the money should be handed over to an intermediary funding body to consult and agree priorities within a short timeframe.’

Currently, the Northern Ireland Civil Service (Nics) is the de facto government since the collapse of the executive a year ago, and many would argue that it has the power to allocate these funds as it has done in other areas for the last twelve months.

At the very least it could consult about the interim solution proposed by Neil Irwin.

The head of Nics, David Sterling, recently spoke publicly about the position they find themselves in – one where the various departments, health in particular, are in need of reform; but reform requires investment. We are now approaching a point in time at which the Nics can no longer sanction the apportioning of public funds. And while some might be sympathetic to their plight, spare a thought for the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland who continue to be subjected to brutal cuts. As ever, it is the community and voluntary sector who pick up the slack when government fails.

The main political parties have slung mud in predictable directions in an effort to distract from the shambles: the Democratic Unionist Party has blamed Sinn Féin for dissolving the Assembly in the first place; Sinn Féin has blamed the Nics for its failure to act.

Notwithstanding the political theatre, and putting aside the ethics of a law enabling government to seize money that it does not own, so long as the legislation exists, the money could definitely be put to constructive use. Charitable causes could certainly benefit but it could also help finance innovation through social enterprise, which is still sorely lacking in the north of Ireland. It could ‘address systematic challenges and building a strong resilient voluntary and community sector,’ as outlined by John Tizard in New Start.

Some have even suggested that it could rest in a trust fund, earning interest which could help the needy in perpetuity. But until the political situation changes in Northern Ireland, the debate about what the money should be spent on has, sadly, become moot.

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