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Public anger forces U-turn on plans to cut opening hours for our libraries in Northern Ireland

By Allan Preston

Published 05/08/2016

Chief executive of Libraries NI Irene Knox
Chief executive of Libraries NI Irene Knox

Plans to cut opening hours at 14 of Northern Ireland's busiest libraries have been scrapped after more than 8,000 people objected.

Many spoke movingly in a public consultation about how local libraries had helped those who struggled with literacy, unemployment and isolation.

An extra £225,000 has now been allocated to cover the costs.

Communities Minister Paul Givan said: "The views of people are important in any public consultation and the responses received during the Libraries NI consultation have been clearly heard, both by the organisation and by me as minister."

Chief executive of Libraries NI Irene Knox said she was overwhelmed by the public support, saying the services made a difference to people of all ages.

"It is heartening to read their stories and within the resources that are available to us, we will continue to develop and deliver services that meet identified need," she said.

The 14 libraries which faced opening times of just 45 hours a week were Ballymena, Bangor, Belfast Central, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Derry Central, Dungannon, Enniskillen, Finaghy, Glengormley, Lisburn City, Lurgan, Newry City and Omagh.

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland welcomed the "significant U-turn" by Mr Givan, calling it a victory for community activism. "We have halted the 'death by a thousand cuts' to which our libraries have been subjected to by successive administrations, both at Stormont and Westminster," said party member Peter Dynes.

"We can't be complacent going forward, but this is an important victory for the communities which would have been affected by further cuts to these vital services.

"Like the recent reversal of plans to close day centres for people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in Belfast, this is an excellent example of what can be achieved when people organise to resist cuts, alongside the trade union movement."

Trade union Unison also welcomed the decision, but warned that Libraries NI still had to make cuts of £2m in 2016/17.

"Unison will continue to challenge any cuts to our libraries that will negatively impact on staff and on the service provided to the public," a spokesman said.

"The importance that the public places in our libraries, as seen through the level of response to this consultation process, must be recognised and our libraries must be protected."

Last year Ms Knox said budget cuts meant library staff were "living in a constant state of uncertainty" and officials could continue to "salami slice" the library service. Since Libraries NI was formed in 2009, 114 employees have lost their jobs through voluntary redundancies.

It was also expected that 19 staff would leave through the civil service voluntary exit scheme.

In 2015, it was revealed that £2.7m was spent on book stocks, down from £3.4m four years before.

"We have been through a number of strategic reviews; we have been reducing opening hours; we have been reducing programming; we are reducing the stock budget," said Ms Knox.

"Staff are being faced, all the time, with complaints from customers about reduced stock or it not being available.

"Losing stock, losing colleagues - all of that has a really negative impact on people."

Belfast Telegraph

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