Department admits scheme is weighted in favor of Protestants
Posted By: April 04, 2017
Ex-minister Paul Givan had branded criticism of program “sectarianism.”
Connla Young. Irish News. Belfast. Tuesday, April 4, 2017
A STORMONT department has admitted that a community hall scheme is weighted in favor of the Protestant community.
The admission is contained in a revised equality screening document published by the Department for Communities (DFC) last week.
The Community Halls Pilot Programme was launched by former first minister Arlene Foster and communities minister Paul Givan during a visit to an Orange Hall last year.
The Irish News has learned that a screening document said the scheme, which has been criticized by nationalists, is expected “to have a positive impact on people of a Protestant religious belief.”
The document also reveals that DFC officials believe that the policy “is not expected to provide further opportunities to better promote good relations between people of different religious belief.”
However, the department said, “any impact is expected to be positive in that the funding will help improve access to the facilities in community halls across Northern Ireland.”
Described as a ‘section 75 screening form’, the document said the community hall program was designed to prioritize “low capacity” organizations and “organizations that have not attracted previous funding.”
It claims that some “faith-based” groups, including the Orange Order, do not apply for lottery funds because “this is regarded as benefitting from gambling.”
While it had an initial budget of £500,000, the cost of the program has since spiraled to £1.9 million.
It has also emerged that 34 Orange halls and two Masonic halls are among the 90 successful applicants to the scheme.
Just two Ancient Order of Hibernian halls have been awarded cash through the scheme, which offered grants up to £25,000 for the upgrade of community halls.
A similar number of GAA clubs were successful despite around 60 applications from clubs affiliated to the association.
In total 58 of successful applications to the scheme are from groups “perceived” to be Protestant while just nine were from Catholic organizations.
Mr. Givan has previously branded criticism of him and the scheme as “narrow-minded sectarianism.”
Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) deputy director Daniel Holder said the screening document “implies that the funding criteria around not having received lottery monies were designed to prioritize groups in this category.”
“It would be right and proper to prioritize community halls resources towards mostly male-run Protestant faith-based groups if that is where most objective need lies – however, none of the documents produced by the department to date provide any evidence that this is the case,” he said.
“It is also unclear why the department had not mentioned this was their approach until now, and why the fund, if targeting community centers most in objective need, did not just stick to things like the state of disrepair as its criteria.”
A spokeswoman for the department said the equality screening exercise had concluded that the scheme “will have no adverse impact on any Section 75 category”.
“Any impact is expected to be positive in that the funding will help improve access to the facilities in community halls across Northern Ireland,” she said.
“It has been updated to reflect the available information following an analysis of the 861 applications received.”
SDLP assembly member John Dallat criticized the department’s approach.
“To put forward the notion that Protestants don’t apply to the lottery is a poor excuse for the failure of the scheme to reach out to all the community,” he said.
“This type of gravy train, no matter what side they benefit, has to stop leaving Stormont.”
Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey said it shows the DUP’s “aversion to equality.”
“This report clearly indicates that one section of the community were the most likely beneficiaries of the Community Halls scheme and that it was not expected to promote good relations between those of differing religious beliefs.
“The failure of the DUP communities minister to follow normal equality processes is indicative of his party’s deep aversion to equality. It is another example of the DUP’s cavalier approach to public finances, which is the heart of the current RHI scandal.”