‘Community and voluntary groups will suffer if no agreement at Stormont’

Edwin Poots MLA. Pic by Aaron McCracken, Harrisons
Edwin Poots MLA. Pic by Aaron McCracken, Harrisons

Failure by the political parties to reach an agreement and get the Assembly up and running again soon could have a “devastating impact” on the local community and voluntary sector, a Lagan Valley MLA has warned.

Edwin Poots says he has been contacted by representatives of a number of community organisations in the Lisburn area who are worried that they may no longer be able to provide vital services if they don’t receive the funding they rely on.

While government money for community and voluntary organisations has been assured for the next few months, the DUP man says failure to agree a budget for Northern Ireland could mean many groups lose their funding and are forced to cut services, lay off staff or even fold.

“All the community and voluntary groups are getting a letter saying that their money is guaranteed up until July 31 I think it is, so a lot of them will be putting their staff on 90-day notice as a consequence,” he said.

“At this moment in time the civil servants don’t have the 100 per cent budget that the Executive would’ve had, and the consequence of that is that instead of having ten billion to spend there’s five hundred million pounds less.

“It’s easier for a government to put off a community association than it is to dispense with hundreds of its own staff, so it is those local groups that will take the hit at the early stage.”

Warning that failure to reach an agreement to get the devolved institutions up and running could have “a devastating impact on Northern Ireland’s community and voluntary sector”, Mr Poots added: “There is a lot of concern out there in the voluntary sector and a lot of concern among service users.

“If an agreement goes through very quickly then this could all be resolved within a matter of a few weeks, but if it doesn’t go through then it will put a lot of organisations in a real quandary.”

Asked if there is any likelihood of an agreement at Stormont any time soon, the local MLA continued: “Four of the main parties want an agreement, but I’m not so sure about the other one [Sinn Fein]. There are two parties that you need there and we’re one of them and we’re prepared to do something, but we can’t do it alone.”

Mr Poots, who spent 30 hours involved in the talks last Friday and Saturday, claimed the negotiations are “operating at a snail’s pace.”

Meanwhile, NICVA has welcomed an assurance from senior civil servants that departments will continue to fund voluntary and community organisations they have a funding relationship with for three months, in the absence of an agreed Northern Ireland budget.

However, the umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland stressed that the funding assurance is only “a temporary fix” and is “no substitute for a budget set by a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.”

Stressing that ‘papering over the cracks’ simply won’t do, NICVA Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey said: “We hope that Northern Ireland’s parties can find a way to resolve their differences and maintain the devolved institutions. Most of all we need stability.”