Belfast Telegraph

Bill for shaping Northern Ireland's 'shared future' may end up hitting half a billion

BY NOEL MCADAM

An overall budget has yet to be agreed for the Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness 'shared future' blueprint amid claims it could cost half a billion pounds.

And five months after they were unveiled, there are also no target dates for most of the key elements of the plans – apart from the dismantling of all 'peace barriers' by 2023.

Now MLAs are voicing serious doubts over the proposals designed to tackle sectarianism and kick-start more aid from the London coalition government under the 'economic pact' with Stormont.

Only pilot schemes are envisaged for the United Youth programme – which aims to bring young Protestants and Catholics together in training – and they are not due to get under way until next summer.

One Executive minister also disclosed that it has not yet been finalised which Department is to head up the initiative, due to create 10,000 places.

However, senior official Fergus Devitt has been appointed to head up a new united community division within the OFMDFM which has been given an initial budget.

Chairman of the committee which monitors OFMDFM, Mike Nesbitt, asked if the total budget for the plan is £0.5bn.

OFMDFM director of equality Denis McMahon said: "It is not possible to say exactly what all of these programmes will cost. (But) I can say with certainty that ministers are absolutely clear that this will be delivered and that the resources will be found, so the funding will be a mix of existing resources and central funds."

On the United Youth programme, Ulster Unionist leader Nesbitt (right) suggested since the focus of the Department of Employment (DEL) is also in dealing with NEETs, the programme amounted to "repackaging... is that all that you are doing?"

Dr McMahon responded: "There is a big difference, in that this also has a major good relations dimension, but it is in the same territory of giving young people the best possible opportunities to grow, learn and engage."

The SDLP's Colum Eastwood said: "DEL is told that there is no budget line for it but that you will work that out later and work with that department. That seems like a strange method of government. I think that it is a bit back to front.

DEL minister Stephen Farry also separately told his scrutiny committee, however: "There is an issue over who will eventually lead on this, but, in some ways, that is probably a premature question... as not enough has been nailed down yet."

Mr Devitt said: "A ministerial panel will ensure that the overall strategy is implemented in full, and there is scope in the document for people to be added to that panel, perhaps from the business or voluntary and community sector."

Mr Nesbitt also asked how the timescale of 10 years had been arrived at for dismantling all peace barriers by 2023.

Mr Devitt said: "It is recognised that a lot of good work is going on in communities, some of it very quietly, in an attempt to create the conditions for some of the structures to be lowered, removed or changed in some way. The 10-year time frame recognises how much is involved.

"There are about 80 structures in total, and there is a need to identify and then create the conditions that will allow them to come down before their physical removal.

"Those factors make it a longer term project, and 10 years was estimated to be an ambitious but realistic target for doing all of that."

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