Big Freeze on investments from International Fund for Ireland

The US Congress froze funding to the IFI earlier this year

The US Congress froze funding to the IFI earlier this year

THE International Fund for Ireland, the agency set up 25 years ago to build prosperity and reconciliation on both sides of the border, has investments, donations due, cash in the bank and money waiting to be asked for by projects amounting to at least £150m, The Detail can reveal.

As politicians both in Ireland and in the United States lobby for the restoration of funding which was removed from the 2011 budget an analysis of its accounts show there is a pipeline of cash that could stretch for years.

The Fund was set up in 1986 and contributions are drawn from the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as the EU.

The Detail has learnt that, as of last September, the fund had £126m in cash, investments and donations due, which date back to 2008.

It was also sitting on £62m in its outstanding balance of approved expenditure, to projects that had not yet asked for the money, some of it dating back to 2006.

Since then cheques have almost certainly been signed and sent out, though the IFI said it could not comment on how much before its next accounts are published.

The IFI in recent years has distributed between £20m and £30m a year.

The IFI says all money received has been allocated to programmes and projects but that the deadline to spend it on actual projects is December 2013.

While other governments and the EU are not pledging any more contributions, and have been under no public pressure to do so, the White House has included $2.5m for the fund in its 2012 budget.

Peter Robinson and Robin Newton lobbied for Red Sky extension

Peter Robinson and Robin Newton lobbied for Red Sky extension

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny felt that keeping the IFI going was important enough that he raised the issue of getting more money with Senator Patrick Leahyand Northern Ireland Junior Minister Robin Newton has told leaders in Washington continued funding is vital.

Even the fiscally conservative Republican Congressman Peter King, head of the Friends of Ireland, has signed an across the aisle letter calling for the American donation of $17m to be restored after it was taken out of the 2011 US budget.

Critics argue the fund has run its course after a quarter of a century and nearly stg700m in donations. They include Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Trina Vargo, the head of the US-Ireland Alliance, which administers the Mitchell Scholarships.

And the record shows that all funding from the US, and the European Union, was supposed to end by 2010; indeed its chairman said in the annual report two years running that the IFI it did not need any more money after then.

In an interview with The Detail, chairman Denis Rooney said: “Basically the funding of the IFI is a matter for the British and Irish governments.”

But Mr Rooney added that he takes the same position as the NI Executive after it was advised on the situation on the ground, took feedback and looked at research, particularly a report authored by the Deloitte consultancy firm.

The IFI-commissioned report published last December concluded the fund was an important element of the peace process and its departure “would have a considerable impact at this critical time of the peace building process,”

The executive’s position is that funding for the IFI is vital.

Junior Minister Robin Newton, on a visit to Washington in March, said: “Its continued existence is vital if we are to sustain the peace and stability that the people of Northern Ireland currently enjoy.”

The Dublin government also believes it should continue.

Enda Kenny, speaking in the Dail after the annual St Patrick’s visit to Washington, said he discussed the fund with Senator Patrick Leahy, head of the appropriations committee.

“(I) stressed that we would welcome support from the US for this specific initiative among hard to reach communities.

“I emphasised the importance of not withdrawing that aid from vulnerable communities on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland.”

And others in Washington agree, including Congressman King.

This is a view that exasperates fellow Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who has spearheaded a campaign to ban any further contribution.

He argues there is no need for the fund and claimed he had spoken to senior Irish officials who agreed it was no longer needed.

The programme has run its course, according to Congresssman Chaffetz. It’s a small amount of money in terms of the US budget but he believes the spending is symptomatic of Washington gone crazy on spending.

“If the US is handing out money like candy you can understand the temptation to take it. But if you don’t need it, don’t take it,” Mr Chaffetz said.

“The US enjoys a good relationship with Ireland but the IFI has run its course and to keep a relationship good it’s only right that you do not want to think a friend is taking advantage of you.”

And the Utah representative believes that not only should funding be blocked in the future, money should be given back if it’s not needed.

A detailed dig into the accounts reveals that the IFI has a lot of of cash that could keep funding for projects going for years – without any further cash injection.

Asked about the accounts, Mr Rooney referred to others within the organisation better able to answer questions. But he did give an absolute assurance all the donor money is committed.

IFI’s chairman, Denis Rooney

IFI’s chairman, Denis Rooney

And an IFI spokeswoman said: “Since the fund’s accounts to 30 September were published, all monies received from donor countries have been committed to various programmes and projects.

“It is therefore incorrect to say the fund has an uncommitted surplus.”

The Detail wanted to talk to someone from the organisation able to walk through the accounts. That did not happen despite two e-mails sent over two weeks ago asking for an interview with someone familiar with the accounts.

As of September 2010, the annual report reveals, the IFI had stg22m in investments and had stg41m in cash in its bank accounts.

It was also owed stg62m in donations due within one year, though that has not happened in recent years, the annual accounts shows. Money owed by the US and the EU date back to 2008.

The approved project expenditure outstanding – for which a claim for payment of a grant had not yet been received – amounted to a further stg62m.

For accounting purposes, the approved project expenditure was subtracted, leaving a total fund balance of stg66m as of September last year.

What is clear is the IFI has a significant amount of money under its control, or on the way, that has not yet been either allocated, or is in the hands of, particular projects. And it has some time to spend it.

What is not clear is whether some politicians and pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are aware of this.