BY KATHRYN TORNEY
THE Spirit of Enniskillen Trust – which was set up following the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 – has closed.
The Detail has learned that a decision was taken by trustees yesterday (March 14th) to shut down the award-winning charity, which was based in Belfast and worked with young people across Northern Ireland.
The trust’s solicitor has confirmed that financial problems caused by a fall in property values and an increasing deficiency in the trust’s pension commitments led to the closure.
It is understood that 19 other organisations in Northern Ireland – including leading charities – are also caught up in a pension shortfall totalling millions of pounds involving the multi-employer scheme the Enniskillen Trust was part of.
The Spirit of Enniskillen Trust was established in 1989 – inspired by the words of the late Senator Gordon Wilson following the loss of his daughter in the IRA Remembrance Day bombing in 1987. Twelve people died and many others were injured in the Poppy Day blast.
Mr Wilson and his daughter Marie, who was a 20-year-old nurse, were buried in rubble by the explosion. He held her hand and spoke with her during her last moments.
Mr Wilson spoke of the last words between himself and his dying daughter and of his forgiveness in a famous BBC interview: “She held my hand tightly and gripped me as hard as she could. She said: ‘Daddy, I love you very much’.
“Those were her exact words to me and those were the last words I ever heard her say.
“But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge… She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
Mr Wilson died in 1995.
The work of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust depended on the commitment of more than 100 young volunteers who were participants or past participants in trust programmes. It was directed by an executive board of volunteer trustees.
It operated three local and international programmes – Explore (international exchange and leadership), Future Voices (promoting volunteering and participation) and Together (supporting shared education in post–primary schools) – and was based at the Gordon Wilson Centre on Belfast’s Malone Road.
We contacted the trust’s director Michael Arlow for a comment on the closure. He directed us to the trust’s solicitor John Gordon, from Napier and Sons in Belfast.
Mr Gordon, who is an insolvency expert, said: “The Spirit of Enniskillen Trust closed yesterday and has been winding down for the last couple of months.
“In common with a lot of other charities, there have been increasing financial issues which have impacted on the trust’s sustainability.
“The trustees came to me for advice a few months ago and I advised them that, given the financial difficulties that they faced, that it would be appropriate to seek to wind up the trust. The primary reasons are the fall in value of property and also an increasing deficiency in the trust’s pension commitments.
“The decision was taken yesterday to close.
“Spirit of Enniskillen has worked with thousands of young people from across Northern Ireland through local and international programmes. Its work has been supportive of sharing in education and has helped develop capability for leadership in young people enabling them to make positive contributions in their local communities.
“The demise of this organisation will leave a huge gap in the voluntary sector.”
Gerry Burns, one of the trust’s vice-presidents, said: “I am deeply grateful for the contribution that so many people have made to the work of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust over the last 25 years.
“I think that it was highly effective. It was particularly focused on young adults and the enthusiasm they showed for the growth of understanding between our various traditions is highly commendable.
“I am very sorry but circumstances are such that the means of continuing on are very limited.
“If we were really serious about things in Northern Ireland I think that the government would take much stronger steps towards ensuring that we had good community relations but there is a void there. Whether that is lacking because of leadership or understanding, I do not know.”
THE PENSION SHORTFALL
The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), a membership and representative umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, is one of the other organisations tied into the joint multi-employer pension scheme run by the Pensions Trust.
NICVA’s deputy chief executive Una McKernan said: “Our pension scheme has been affected by general problems with the global economy and the increase in life expectancy. The result is a major debt in our scheme which runs into millions of pounds.
“As a result NICVA and other organisations have been told that we need to pay more in. This is also a major issue for other organisations and charities involved in pension schemes throughout the UK.
“We closed the final salary scheme in 2009 but the people who were already in it have their pensions protected. We introduced a new scheme for other staff which has less risk to us.
“Our debt is manageable and there is no risk of closure to NICVA but we have to include our payment as a budget item now and we just have to find a way to pay off the shortfall. Our group has re-negotiated with the pension trust to get a more reasonable payment plan in place over a longer period of time.
“We are aware that dealing with the shortfall could potentially have a bigger impact on smaller organisations but we are trying to encourage all of the members of the group to stick with it and to keep paying. If organisations stop paying they trigger their withdrawal debt and could become insolvent.
“We were just offering our employees a good pension in good faith. What has happened is nobody’s fault. It is down to circumstances relating to the economy and mortality rates.”