Bigger parties running for cover as services come under the knife…

Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable people are the real casualties of the current Stormont impasse. Funding cuts and restrictions across the board are causing chaos in voluntary organisations and educational institutions across the country.

But seemingly the main political parties aren’t in the least bit concerned. Despite polarised politics being the cause of the problem the funding cuts are impartial in the devastation they are causing throughout Northern Ireland.

MLAs continue to bank their salaries as schools and voluntary organisations who depend on government funding play roulette with their employees and service users futures.

By July 10 the press offices and/or headquarters of six political parties in Northern Ireland were contacted to respond to a query in relation to the impact of the Stormont deadlock on the voluntary sector. Responses were received back from the Alliance Party and the Green Party.

The DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP chose not to respond. They were contacted once again via a number of methods such as through their main party email address on their website and on social media, no response.

The SDLP publicly commented on Facebook how they would definitely respond and the query was sent direct to the person who requested it, a reminder was then sent days later – still no response.

This inaction in itself is indicative of how NI’s MLA’s, who are continuing to be paid whilst talks have ceased for the summer and we have no Assembly, put more importance on issues of polarising politics than the crisis facing the country’s most vulnerable people.

No doubt if the press enquiry was tackling the issues of flags, parades, bonfires or the Irish language Act there would have been a more pro-active approach by the parties.

In early July South Belfast organisation Sure Start was forced to put 50 staff on protective notice in order to galvanise politicians into putting the pressure on the Department of Education to release vital funds.

As a result, the Department of Education eventually guaranteed 96% of the organisation’s funding for the next 12 months. However, whilst 96% funding may seem encouraging, it’s not without it’s problems.

A spokeswoman for SureStart South Belfast explained:

“A 4% cut would mean some redundancies and loss of services for South Belfast as our budget has been bared down to the bone and even a full budget is a cut and means no pay rises for yet another year.”

And the Department of Education’s restrictions don’t just affect the voluntary sector, their financial problems are hitting our schools as well.

A North Belfast school principal has expressed serious concern over being able to provide the same level of care for his pupils in the forthcoming school year.

For the last 19 years Lowood Primary School has had a special needs co-ordinator outside the classroom fully allocated to the children. As a result of not knowing what budget is available, head teacher David Patterson is having to make uncomfortable changes.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this month he said he had written to parents explaining the situation. He added:

“How do we plan through uncertainty? You are getting emails from the Department saying ‘don’t dare spend more money than you have in your budget’ but when we probably know we will be given a little extra money, but say you can’t plan for that.

“So what do we do? Make three or four people redundant on the back of something that might not happen? That’s not fair to the kids or employees.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said:

“As a consequence of the indicative budget for the Department of Education announced by the Secretary of State on 24th April, the Department faces major financial pressures in 2017-18 if it is to operate within its budget.

Consequently, options to reduce spending across all programme areas are being explored. Final decisions on the scale of the budget reductions have not been taken on all areas and will depend on the Department’s final budget allocation. Those decisions that have been made have been communicated to the relevant organisations.”

Also this month third party funders across the country announced that many of their small grants programmes were on hold. One such organisation wrote to the voluntary sector explaining that their own small grants programme, funded by the Department of Communities was “on hold”.

The letter sent out said it was “due to the current political impasse at Stormont”.

It added:

“This impasse has resulted in the Department not currently having approval to launch the next round of funding. This programme (like numerous other government programmes) cannot move forward without agreement.

The Department have assured us that once an agreement has been made and that all government budgets have been signed off, they will launch the Small Grants programme. Unfortunately, at present the programme will remain on hold.”

At time of publishing a statement had not yet been received by the Department of Communities in relation to this matter.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said the problems being faced by organisations and institutions servicing those most in need in Northern Ireland are unequivocally the fault of the main political parties.

He added:

“The failure of the traditional parties to end the impasse has led to a situation where staff have been put on protective notice and services withdrawn.

“The reality remains that the traditional parties, specifically the DUP and Sinn Fein, are holding this process up and so are capable to finding a way forward. Without the will to restore the Assembly and Executive on the part of the DUP and Sinn Fein, a deal is not possible.

“In the meantime, Secretary of State James Brokenshire can and should provide funding assurances to voluntary and community sector organisations through the relevant departments. This will provide a degree of financial certainty for organisations and allow them to forward plan without the loss of staff or services.”

Joan McParland, voluntary co-ordinator Hope 4 ME & Fibro Northern Ireland, is seeing first hand the crisis unfolding as a result of funding restrictions within her own organisation.

She explained:

“I am a volunteer for Hope 4 ME & Fibro Northern Ireland and suffer from a severe physical disability, as do the entire committee, except one. Our situation is fairly unique in that we don’t have volunteers who are in full health and able to organise physically demanding fundraisers i.e. street collections or taking part in sponsored marathons.

“We do not receive any government core funding and therefore rely heavily on the generosity of our members and small grants from various funding bodies. As unpaid volunteers are not expected to be out of pocket for any costs involved with doing work for the charity, I was dismayed to receive an email from a funding organisation, who in previous years, provided financial support for mileage, subsistence and things like babysitting costs to help parents when offering their services when doing charity work.

“The reason given by the funding organisation is even more frustrating as they explained how the release of this financial support was on hold since April, due to the downfall of the NI devolved government.

“Therefore, small charities like ourselves, must wait until there is a government in place or some sort of direction from officials to allow funding to be released. In the meantime we struggle on regardless with offering vital services to patients who rely heavily on our support.

“This situation does not help with the difficulties already faced in recruiting more volunteers and also makes my own role as treasurer even more difficult with trying to make ends meet.”

It would seem not all organisations will be affected by the current stalemate. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said:

“At this stage, no decisions have been taken on reducing the funding levels provided to the voluntary and community organisations who are core grant funded by the Department.”

But that offers no comfort to those depending on finance from other departments or from small grants programmes.

As disappointing as it is to have no response from the main four political parties on this matter, there is still the question as to how much each MLA can really do to help despite continuing to be paid for their services as an MLA?

It also begs the question as to whether or not the situation has left them being forced to pay lip service and wasting time trying to alleviate the fears of their constituents whilst really having no power to fix the problems as the Stormont impasse continues?

It would seem the deadlock has left MLAs fire fighting problems caused by the lack of Assembly rather than getting on with the day to day business of working for their constituents.

When the Northern Ireland electorate took the ballot box surely they didn’t expect to become casualties of this “new” war that bears the familiarities of tired old partisan politics.

A spokesman for the Alliance party said:

“We have already met with the new head of the Civil Service to discuss budget pressures and to encourage Permanent Secretaries to take forward actions to ensure services can continue to be provided.

“We acknowledge civil servants will have a difficult role during political instability. They will continue to deliver programmes based on previous ministerial direction, however, the longer NI is without political direction, the more decisions will have to be taken by civil servants working in a political vacuum.

“We are committed to reforming a devolved government to deliver an effective programme for government in partnership with business and third sector.

“We ask that anyone impacted contacts their local MLA via their constituency office, providing details of how their service has been cut or reduced.

“We are keen to meet staff, volunteers and service users who are negatively impacted by changes brought forward by their sponsoring government department

“The return of a devolved Assembly is the only way to address our unique and specific issues. Some may believe direct rule is an option but if it is introduced it could remove all the mitigation actions taken to prevent the full force of welfare reform from hitting those living in poverty and the most vulnerable across NI.”

Interestingly it would seem that whilst what divides this country may be causing the problem it could end up being the common feelings of being further disenfranchised and having a continued stream of services stripped from our lives that could ultimately mobilise a grass roots movement.

In an idealistic world we can hope that these problems could force those with more similarities than differences to engage in political and social activity which will spell the beginning of the end for political parties trading on fear, bigotry and issues that will begin to seem irrelevant as the vulnerable are plunged deeper into financial, emotional, mental, physical, educational and practical chaos.

Until that time the stalemate will remain, the MLAs will continue to collect their wages as our voluntary sector traumatise over which services and staff they should cut.