Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland charities 'face major risks if funds and opportunity to work with Europe are lost'

By Margaret Canning

Northern Ireland charities are facing major challenges as a result of Brexit, it's been claimed.

Accountancy firm PKF-FPM has said the risk of losing EU funding could have the knock-on effect of closing off other revenue streams.

Lowry Grant, charity director at PKF-FPM, added that Northern Ireland charities with overseas operations were also facing higher operating costs as a result of the vote to leave the EU and the resulting fall in the value in sterling.

And in addition, high inflation could mean that people have less money to spending on charitable giving and less to spend in charity shops.

PKF-FPM has now launched Protecting People with Purpose, a forum for charity chief executives to come up with responses to the challenges they face.

Mr Grant said: "CEOs must lead with confidence in the face of the long-term uncertainties posed by Brexit.

"These will have enormous implications for funding and will increase demand for the vital services that charities provide."

He said that charity CEOs would now find it harder to forward plan: "Previously, EU funding would have come in three- to four-year tranches, with the renewal of packages like Peace meaning that you could plan reasonably well in advance."

And he said lower Bank of England interest rates - with a cut in the main rate to 0.25% following Brexit - meant that charities were now earning less interest on any investments.

Charities were also facing a string of other challenges, including the need to adopt new technologies and policies on cyber security and social media, as well as changes to corporate governance and regulation.

Susan Russam, the chief executive of training and skills organisation Gems NI, which is based in Belfast, said: "The third sector has been supported through the European Social Fund and structural funds for a significant time - even before the Good Friday Agreement - as well as from peace funds and the European Regional Development Fund.

"The main issue now is how change is going to affect our finances and ability to deliver services."

And she said that the charitable sector did not have faith in reassurances from the UK government that levels of European funds would be maintained in future.

"We are concerned that in the longer term, other things will take priority," she added. "There will be the cost of replacing farm subsidies and a deficit in the National Health Service, so there's quite a bit of alarm in our sector that things like promoting social inclusion and tackling economic in activity will be overlooked."

Gems NI (Gasworks Employment Matching Service) was set up in 2002 as a form of dividend for the community during the redevelopment of Laganside and the Gasworks.

"That was in January 2002 as a 27-month project and we have been here ever since," said Mrs Russam. We are funded through the European Social Fund with match-funding from the Department for the Economy and Lisburn and Castlereagh Council.

"The point is that the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland have been much supported by EU structural funds. Until we see the outworkings of a soft or hard Brexit, we will be concerned."

She said the organisation was also concerned that it would lose the ability to carry out more "innovative" projects.

And she said there were fears of losing out on opportunities to work with other European countries.

"Not only have we benefited from the innovation we've taken from Europe, but we've also taken our services and programmes and transferred that experience to Europe," she added. "I'm quite saddened by what the future might hold.

"I've been in Belfast all my working life and I have seen things change for the better so that we have a more peaceful and more moderate society through always having the benefiting of working with European partners."

Belfast Telegraph