Development body's closure leaves rural areas voiceless: UFU
Northern Ireland's farming communities will be left without a voice as a result of the closure of the Rural Development Council (RDC), the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has said.
The RDC, which is based in Cookstown, was set up in 1991 to provide support to rural areas. Last week it announced it would be closing down because of a £3m pensions deficit.
Staff were part of the local government pension scheme, which is administered by the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers' Superannuation Committee.
But RDC chairman Tony McCusker last week said the spiralling cost of pensions and a lack of political stability had played a part in the body's closure.
UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt said the RDC had been a voice for rural communities for over 25 years.
He also stressed the closure would reinforce the perception of a divide in the amount spent in rural areas compared to urban areas.
"The RDC helped bring a large number of projects to fruition, helping offset the loss of public and private services in these areas," he added.
"That it fell victim to a pensions deficit problem that it tried to resolve with government is a further example of the fallout from our political paralysis in Northern Ireland."
Last week the Department for Communities, which supports the voluntary and community sector, said it could not have plugged the pension gap as the RDC is an autonomous body.
"The RDC was not at any time a formal non-departmental body," it said. "The department cannot guarantee a potentially considerable liability for which it has no responsibility."
Mr Chestnutt said pressures on rural areas had expanded the union's role and it had worked with the RDC in matters such as education and transport.
"This is a tough battle and it was good to know we could work with a body like the RDC to battle a culture that makes rural communities the first target when cuts bite," he said.
"We will continue fighting, but it is wrong, and a disservice to people, that ways could not be found to prevent the closure of an organisation that has helped bridge the urban-rural divide."