Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Executive silence over fate of charity has failed us all

DUP ministers raced to the rescue of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. So why is there no fuss over the demise of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust, asks Robin Wilson

An event last week passed without a public trace in a way that should make us all sit up and reflect on the society we live in.

 It was the product of an episode a quarter-of-a-century ago so seared in our memories that those of us old enough to recall it can remember where we were when it happened.

The 1987 Enniskillen bombing was one of those moments where even what one thought might have been the boundaries of depravity during the Troubles proved to be just another line in the sand.

Eleven civilians were killed in the attack on a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph in the town. Among them was nurse Marie Wilson, who died among the debris while her father, Gordon, held her hand.

The IRA 'operation' – about which we now know, from the work of BBC reporter Peter Taylor, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, then IRA 'northern commander', was briefed days earlier – would likely have led to an horrendous sectarian retaliation, but for Mr Wilson's conciliatory statements.

He went on to make an almost-lone, non-partisan northern contribution to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, established following the 1994 IRA ceasefire. And he was to inspire the formation of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust, an organisation committed to working with schoolchildren for reconciliation.

The trust has made an unparalleled contribution to the cause of integration. I have had the privilege to observe a number of events, where some of the thousands of youngsters it has engaged have put to shame their adult political representatives – like Peter Robinson, with his churlish failure to associate himself with a St Patrick's Day celebration on a jaunt with Mr McGuinness to Brazil.

I have always taken away an uplifting conclusion: I have seen the future. And it works.

But this is not the vision of our current incumbents at Stormont. On the contrary, Sinn Fein has resisted the very idea of a shared future, on the specious grounds that those who advocate it supposedly fail to recognise the importance of equality between Catholics and Protestants.

Nor is it the goal of the DUP – too focused on its nightmare demons of gay marriage and abortion to consider reconciliation except opportunistically.

No, that party has a rather different agenda. Whereas in Scotland and Wales, advocates of devolution wanted to put, as a former Welsh first minister said, "clear red water" between their capitals and London, the DUP sees Stormont as the bastion against a liberal agenda.

It may not deliver on bread-and-butter issues. It may not make citizens feel any more engaged. But it can say, loud and clear: stop the world, we want to get off.

So, when it came to rescuing the Presbyterian Mutual Society, in which nearly 10,000 Protestants had staked their pensions, DUP ministers were quickly out of the blocks to secure a solution, aided by Westminster funding.

It was, arguably, in breach of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, implementing the Belfast Agreement, which committed devolved departments to be impartial between Catholics and Protestants.

But no judicial review was taken to test what was, prima facie, an intervention to use public money from all taxpayers to support only one religious section of them.

Now the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust is being forced to close, because of unfunded pension liabilities. About that, however, Executive ministers have been deafeningly silent.

The trust has fallen victim to the same capitalism of the casino, as Keynes called it, in the City of London, which befell the PMS.

Yet only a handful of staff work in the trust's Belfast headquarters and the cost of a rescue by the Executive would not register in its budgetary calculations.

The trust is scrupulously non-sectarian. Indeed, its work is so well-regarded that it was named UK Charity of the Year in 2011.

So, yes, you've guessed it. That's precisely why the demise of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust has not excited a ripple of interest at Stormont.

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