Belfast Telegraph

SIF audit: Another blow to confidence in devolution

By Robin Wilson

In the 1930s the government at Stormont was divided. Unlike the sectarian divide which ran through the administration which collapsed in January 2017, it was divided just between wings of the Unionist Party, which monopolised power. More like today, amidst economic crisis it faced austerity imposed from Westminster. And what divided the unionist leadership was public spending.

One faction, represented by the finance ministry, wanted to uphold fiscal conservatism at Stormont, to keep on good terms with the Treasury. The other, led by the unionist Prime Minister Sir James Craig instead favoured finding the money to keep the support of the Protestant working class. A paper written within finance accused the Prime Minister of a policy of "distributing bones".

Fast-forward to today and the Audit Office has accused the ministerial duopoly which the DUP and Sinn Fein comprised of doing just that.

Despite huge pressures on the budgets of the two biggest spenders, health and education, from cuts imposed by the Treasury since the change of government in 2010, the two parties, when in office, agreed to establish a Social Investment Fund (SIF) with a budget of £80m, under which 68 projects have been allocated support before the fund expires in March 2020.

The fund was supposed to 'deliver social change' yet was associated with no new policy to actually tackle inequality and social exclusion - just the distribution of monies. And the Audit Office discovered that how the process was conducted was not properly documented and involved conflicts of interest at the outset.

Under the fund, 'steering groups' were established for the nine SIF zones. In turn these established 'lead partners' to manage projects. This complex bureaucratic process did not prevent groups which were potential recipients of funds being involved In decisions about their allocation.

Fears were expressed by those close to the process from the outset that it would be used as a vehicle for political clientelism. Such fears were borne out when it was revealed that a group in east Belfast in recipient of SIF funds, Charter NI, was headed by an individual, Dee Stitt, convicted of armed robbery. Mr Stitt denies he is a senior figure in the UDA.

A BBC Spotlight investigation linked the wider claim of clientelism to the successful effort by the DUP to regain in 2015 the Westminster seat of East Belfast, lost by its then leader and First Minister Peter Robinson to Naomi Long of Alliance in 2010. Pressure by Alliance for a review of SIF was blocked by the DUP and its Executive partner, SF.

The NI Life and Times Survey showed erosion of confidence in the achievements of the devolved administration from its renewal in 2007. The latest revelations will do nothing to add to confidence that any restoration of that administration, nearly two years on from its demise, would be associated with either good governance or government for the public good.

Robin Wilson is author of The Northern Ireland Experience Of Conflict And Agreement: A Model For Export?

Belfast Telegraph

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