Dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein has left one of their flagship policies far behind schedule and meant that the only spend from a deprivation fund has been almost £400,000 paid to consultants.
The Social Investment Fund (SIF), which has been controversial since it was first mooted almost three years ago, was set up by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness as a key element of the Executive’s attempts to relieve hardship in the Province’s neediest areas
The £80 million project was denounced by political opponents as a “slush fund”, with some fearing that the money would end up in the hands of former terrorist ‘community workers’.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have repeatedly denied those claims and insisted that the money would bring jobs and other benefits to the areas where they are most needed.
However, it has now emerged that not a penny has been spent on the projects originally envisaged — yet hundreds of thousands of pounds has been spent on management consultants.
A report by investigative news website The Detail revealed that none of the £50 million SIF cash supposed to have been spent by now under the timetable set out by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has gone to those intended, with the only spending going on bureaucracy.
The website claimed that the logjam between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness was over whether the money would go to Protestant or Roman Catholic areas. A DUP spokesman said: “Ministers have only received a portion of the approved business cases of the overall schemes and are at an advanced stage in their discussions.”
UKIP MLA David McNarry uncovered that £389,847 had been spent on consultants RSM McClure Watters, Wallace Consulting, Deloitte, Copius Consulting and Stormont’s Central Procurement Directorate.
Mr McNarry said that after asking Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness how much of the £80 million had been spent, he was surprised to have been told that only consultants had benefited. He added: “What a disappointment. Are they really telling us that there is no need for urgent spending on poverty and unemployment?”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell claimed the deadlock was down to “narrow party self-interest” and was failing the most needy.
Stormont leaders in US trade trip
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness yesterday embarked on their latest overseas trade mission, meeting businesses in Boston.
The first and deputy first ministers arrived in Massachusetts on Sunday night for the five-day visit and yesterday met the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership Board and the president of the Massachusetts Senate, Therese Murray.
Last night the two men were due to meet potential investors and this morning they are due to address a ‘US-EU Connected Health Conference’ before meeting with the University of Massachusetts “to build on the existing relationship with University of Ulster”.
However, it is understood that there are no plans for the two men to visit Boston College, the university which has taken a great interest in Northern Ireland and whose project recording paramilitary confessions has been in the eye of a legal storm.
Tomorrow the leaders are to fly to Chicago for meetings with more potential investors and to visit two existing investors, Caterpillar and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
DUP said fund would confound naysayers
The Social Investment Fund has faced criticism from the outset.
Two years ago the then SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie claimed it was “the gift that binds Sinn Fein into the consensus of cuts”. The TUV leader Jim Allister described it as “a slush fund for paramilitary types”, while UUP MLA Tom Elliott said he feared the fund would be “used by the DUP and Sinn Fein in an attempt to gain patronage and curry favour with certain community groups and organisations”.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein fiercely rejected those allegations. More than two years ago DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell hit back at the critics, saying: “The Social Investment Fund will provide pathways to work that will result in more jobs for those from communities most in need... it is an audacious attempt by government to intervene in a positive way.”