EFFORTS to raise the controversy over Stormont’s frozen £80 million poverty fund on the floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly were refused today.
East Belfast Alliance representative Chris Lyttle sought to raise the issue under powers allowing “matters of public importance” to be discussed at short notice, but his request was turned down by the Stormont Speaker’s office.
Mr Lyttle said there is now an urgent need for First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to clarify why the Social Investment Fund (SIF) has failed to release any money to communities since it was launched in 2011.
Mr Lyttle, plus senior politicians in the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, hit out after The Detail reported that almost £400,000 has been paid to consultants working on the fund.
The SIF has been delayed by red tape, but also what appears to be a political stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin over whether more of the money should go to Protestants or Catholics.
Official government statistics show poverty exists in both the unionist and nationalist communities, but is more widespread among Catholics, which could see a larger share of the money going to nationalist areas if it was released on the basis of need. In the past, however, in similar debates, unionists have said particular needs of deprived Protestant areas also need to be factored in.
The DUP has declined to comment on whether this is at the heart of the deadlock, though Sinn Féin has already stated its position as being: “It is our view that SIF monies should be allocated on the basis of need."
Mr Lyttle, who is also deputy chair of the committee that monitors the work of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), said the delays had hit grassroots community groups in deprived communities and an official explanation was required.
Confirming that he submitted an urgent oral question but was turned down by the Speaker, the Alliance representative said: “I respect the authority of the Speaker to decide whether he accepts such requests, but I believe it is important to put on the record that an MLA sought to receive an urgent explanation from an OFMDFM Minister on the floor of the Assembly on the failure to allocate any money to Social Investment Fund projects.
“Many people have expressed their concern at the failure to provide funding to help tackle deprivation across Northern Ireland due to political arguments between the DUP and Sinn Fein.”
He added: “There is now an urgent need for the First and deputy First Minister to clarify what is happening with this fund.”
An Assembly spokesperson said: “The Speaker makes his procedural decision on any individual application for an Urgent Question within the requirements laid out in Standing Orders. The Speaker’s ruling is final.”
Assembly standing orders that frame the decisions of Speaker Willie Hay, his deputies and their office, state that questions for urgent oral answer, which could see a minister or junior minister called to respond, can be taken “if, in the opinion of the Speaker, it is of an urgent nature and relates to a matter of public importance”.
The question may only be asked on a sitting day, and must be submitted before 10.30 am and if the minister or member representing the Assembly Commission to whom it is addressed is given a minimum of four hours’ notice.
When Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness first announced plans for the fund in the months ahead of the 2011 Assembly election, their parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, were accused of seeking to win over voters ahead of the poll.
The parties denied the claim and said they were intent on meeting the needs of deprived communities.
But one of the politicians who criticised the scheme at the time was the SDLP’s Alex Attwood.
He was the Minister for Social Development prior to the 2011 election and accused the two largest parties of taking on responsibilities that should have been left to his department.
Mr Attwood now said his predictions had been borne out.
On the claims that a row over defining the levels of need appeared to be at the heart of the stand-off, he said government resources should only be allocated on the basis of need.
He said that not to do so “offends against any principle of equality or proper tackling of disadvantage”.
Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt, said his party had also been critical of the fund.
“Two years on [from the launch of SIF], no money is on the ground,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt, who chairs the OFMDFM committee, said the issue would be raised in the committee but he said the focus now should be on how best to use the money after lengthy delays.
“You can talk about, `should we hand it out, a pound for you, a pound for them’.
“You can talk about `do we target need’.
“Or maybe what we should be saying is we target where we can make an impact because it’s very easy to throw money at a problem and not actually make a significant difference.”
He suggested programmes to help increase earnings in Northern Ireland, which he said fall below the UK average.
But Mr Nesbitt added: “What we have coming out of OFMDFM is a whole raft of announcements over the last few years, but no delivery.”
The Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister confirmed in an answer to an Assembly question tabled by UKIP representative David McNarry that it has spent £389,847 of the SIF money to five consultancy companies and civil servants as part of the process of setting up the fund.
None the £80 million fund has reached the deprived communities it was created to support.
Both the DUP and Sinn Féin have indicated they are still in discussions over the fund.
© The Detail 2013