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Department broke equality rules over Irish language funding cut, report finds

By Rebecca Black

The Department for Communities has been rapped by the Equality Commission over how it scrapped an Irish language bursary scheme.

In a report published today, the commission said the department failed to comply with equality rules by not carrying out assessments before cutting the £55,000 Liofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme in December 2016 and also when creating the Community Halls Pilot Programme in October 2016.

Critics had claimed the vast majority of those who benefited from the Community Halls scheme were from the unionist tradition.

Chief equality commissioner Michael Wardlow said he expects the department to implement a series of recommendations and report back within six months.

Sinn Fein MLA Declan Kearney blasted the DUP over the findings relating to the department run by Paul Givan at the time. He claimed that both decisions made by Mr Givan "contributed significantly to the collapse of the power-sharing institutions". "The scrapping of the Liofa bursary for disadvantaged children, signed off with a 'Happy Christmas' message, was an appalling decision which was widely seen within the nationalist community as a blatant sectarian and cynical act," he said.

"Similarly, the distribution of Community Halls funding raised widespread public concern given that the vast majority of the beneficiaries were from the unionist tradition.

"Sinn Fein raised these decisions with the Equality Commission because they clearly showed an appalling disregard for the equality provisions which all departments are legally obliged to follow."

But last night the DUP said the issues identified by the Equality Commission were "department failings".

"This has highlighted a failing by the Department for Communities and as pointed out by the Commission, material was not included in submissions to the minister. This is a matter for the department to consider as appropriate," a spokesperson said.

Former DUP Communities Minister Mr Givan cut the funding for Liofa in December 2016.

The decision was greeted with outrage by Irish language supporters, and was reversed later that year.

The Equality Commission investigation found that the Department for Communities failed to comply with its approved equality scheme commitments on screening and equality impact assessment relating to funding decisions for the Liofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme for 2017.

It has also raised questions over the handling of the Community Halls Pilot Programme.

The investigation found that "both the scheme and the programme should have been treated as policies for the purposes of its equality duties and equality scheme arrangements".

"Both concern the distribution of public money based on set criteria and award processes and, in both instances, the funding options presented to the minister for decision should have been informed by an equality assessment against the objectives set for the expenditure," the report said.

Liofa was set up by former Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin in 2011 with the aim of making 1,000 people fluent in Irish by 2015. No recurrent budget was set for it, but funding was made available from 2012 to 2016.

The second aspect of the Equality Commission report was looking at the Community Halls Pilot Programme which was launched on October 19, 2016, initially with a budget of £500,000.

But in January 2017 Mr Givan announced a list of community halls which would receive grants amounting to £1.9m in total.

The commission's report found that the department failed to comply with its equality scheme in that it did not screen the programme at the earliest opportunity and prior to its implementation; nor did it use screening to assess the likely impact of the scheme on the promotion of equality of opportunity. The report made seven recommendations for the department to implement, including that it should ensure that it prepares an equality assessment of the Liofa scheme and the Community Halls programme to inform any future submissions to a minister over funding.

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities said it had "noted the contents and recommendations" in the report.

"The department will continue to work to ensure that it adheres to all its statutory equality obligations," they added.

Equality commissioner Mr Wardlow said the department should take a consistent approach to policies.

"The purpose of the Section 75 statutory duties and the arrangements in equality schemes for fulfilling those duties are to ensure that in the development and implementation of policies, due regard is given to the need to promote equality of opportunity," he said.

"In practice, this means that the department should have undertaken screening and equality impact assessment at appropriate times to inform the development and decision-making on both the scheme and the programme.

"Our investigation found that this did not happen in either case and the minister was not furnished with appropriate equality assessment information."

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