Belfast Telegraph

Mairtin O Muilleoir urged to reveal his plans to ensure £55m fund not lost to Treasury

By John Mulgrew

The potential loss of up to £55m of infrastructure investment due to Brexit setbacks has been branded a "matter of near scandal".

Around £55m was set aside for the Northern Ireland Investment Fund.

But the Belfast Telegraph revealed this week that "uncertainty" and a "greater reluctance" by the European Investment Bank (EIB) means that it is now "reassessing possible delivery models".

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir is coming under pressure to "urgently" outline what will now be done to ensure the cash is not wasted.

The Department of Finance was contacted by this paper yesterday and on Tuesday, but has yet to respond.

The department was advertising for a 'fund manager' to run the scheme, but that is now on hold.

It's also understood if the money is not spent by the end of this tax year, it will have to be returned to the Treasury.

Ulster Unionist MLA and spokesman on the economy, Steve Aiken, said: "I think it's important the minister clarifies the situation, and clarifies it urgently.

"If we look at the tight funding situation that is effectively the Northern Ireland budgetary process, the fact that potentially £55m of already allocated funding may have to be returned is not just a matter of concern, it is a matter of near scandal.

"The fact that given the three months or so since the referendum, and that the Northern Ireland Executive has still not come up with any form of plan, or says it hasn't been in any degree of discussion with the Treasury on these issues, means we in Northern Ireland cannot afford to lose this."

John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employers Federation, said there was now a "clear risk of losing a lot of the funding" to Westminster, which is a "situation we cannot afford".

The Northern Ireland Investment Fund was due to inject cash into a range of major infrastructure projects here. That included urban regeneration, energy, telecoms and social housing.

An email seen by this paper said: "There is much uncertainty and greater reluctance on behalf of the European Investment Bank in playing an active role in the delivery of, and co-investment into, the Fund in the post-EU referendum context.

"The department is therefore currently reassessing possible delivery models. As soon as this work has concluded, a decision on the fund manager procurement will be taken."

The project was initially due to get the backing and support of the European Investment Bank, but it is now reluctant to get involved in the wake of the EU vote.

"While to some extent understandable in the context of Brexit, this announcement is nonetheless extremely disappointing for a local construction industry facing seismic sustainability challenges and for the partnership approach between the public and private sectors that was proposed," Mr Armstrong said.

"The Investment Fund had, rightly, earmarked specific areas where we have specific infrastructure challenges, such as urban regeneration and housing."

It's understood money from the fund must be spent in conjunction with companies in the private sector.

Belfast Telegraph