Ulster Unionist Leader, Robin Swann MLA, has claimed that the continuing absence of a local Executive has resulted in a major scheme supporting rural Unionist communities along the border to access funding, coming to an end because there is no DAERA Minister in place to extend the contract.
Mr Swann said that the current Rural Development Programme, with a budget of over £600m, aims to protect and enhance the rural environment, rural businesses and support a thriving rural community.
He added: “From 2012 there has been a widely recognised problem that people from the Protestant, Unionist or Loyalist (PUL) community living in rural areas along the border, needed additional support to access funding and that they especially needed assistance with capacity building.
“As a result, four areas across Northern Ireland were provided an additional PUL support element to specifically address the under representation in funding applications and awards. The areas were Armagh delivered by CACD, Newry delivered by Altnaveigh House, Fermanagh and Londonderry.
“Whilst I appreciate this particular support was never intended to be permanent, I certainly hoped that it would have remained in place for as long as there was a recognised need for it. However, that simply hasn’t been the case,” he added.
Mr Swann said that earlier this year the Ulster Unionist Party was contacted by numerous people from across the four areas and they said that the separate PUL aspect had now been left out from the latest tendering process. Following these discussions Mr Swann wrote to the Permanent Secretary of DAERA seeking an explanation.
He added: “His response stated that whilst initially a three-year period had been funded, following strong lobbying, it had since been extended on a year-by-year basis at the discretion of Ministers.
“Any decision to extend it further would be for an incoming Minister to make, and given the fact that there simply isn’t one in place, DAERA told me that it is for that reason the PUL support has not been included in the current contract, which is out to tender.
“If the funding is withdrawn it will immediately see well respected and efficient local organisations having to drastically scale back their services, possibly close offices, and almost certainly lose staff. This would come as a devastating blow to the local communities that they assist.
“The cost of this support is negligible compared to the overall budget so I believe cutting it would be a retrograde step that would only increase the imbalance of allocations from the RDP.
“It’s just the latest example of how the continuing sham and stalemate between the two larger Parties at Stormont is beginning to have a seriously damaging effect on local people,” Mr Swann added.