Simon Coveney’s department says it has no agenda behind funding ‘Irish unity conversations’ via Londonderry-based charity Holywell Trust

The Irish government has insisted that it had no “agenda” when it handed over a five-figure grant to a Londonderry organisation which seeks to encourage “conversations” about a united Ireland.

Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 11:38 am
The Act of Union, which effectively created the modern UK, dates back to 1800
The Act of Union, which effectively created the modern UK, dates back to 1800

Dublin’s foreign affairs department last night issued a statement to the News Letter concerning its work with the Holywell Trust.

Holywell is a registered charity with seven staff and a budget of roughly a quarter-of-a-million pounds, and among its many projects is one called “Future Relationship Conversations” (FRC).

The FRC project rests on the following claim, which the charity states simply as a fact: “there is a need and growing desire across communities to have a conversation on the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland”.

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It seeks to talk to unionists about their “attitudes to possible alternative future relationships and constitutional arrangements, including on which arrangements might be most acceptable”.

Holywell’s FRC project is funded by, among other organisations, Ireland’s foreign affairs department, headed by Fine Gael minister Simon Coveney.

His department handed over a 55,000 Euro grant to Holywell last December (about £47,000), from its “reconciliation fund”.

The reason Holywell hit the headlines this week is because journalists noticed it is currently preparing a new scheme under the FRC banner – a trawl of all Northern Ireland’s media, to determine whether outlets are making “positive or negative contributions” towards “addressing division and deepening understanding of the constitutional issue”.

The idea of this media trawl drew strong reaction from some who hold that it is the media’s job to report facts, not to bolster or undermine “division”.

In addition to taking Irish government cash, the NI Executive has also funded Holywell’s work, as has the local Londonderry council.

The Irish government statement last night said of its £47,000 grant: “This funding was to support a broad ranging project involving dialogue and research in relation to options for future relationships and constitutional arrangements on the island of Ireland without any pre-determined outcome or agenda.

“The project was intended to draw out diverse views, with a particular focus on those from a Protestant, Unionist, or Loyalist tradition.

“It also envisaged conducting research into relevant topics intended to support an informed and constructive dialogue that would support reconciliation.

“The particular topics for research were to be identified during the project through dialogue and engagement by the Holywell Trust.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs had no role in deciding what particular areas should be included.

“The findings and recommendations from the project were to be presented at a final conference for discussion [note: this past-tense language is somewhat strange since Holywell’s media trawl scheme has not even finished going out to tender yet, and there is no indication it has been stopped – therefore the intention remains to present it at a conference, most likely sometime this coming December].

“The Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund has always been open to applications from those from all communities and traditions on this island.

“As set out in the Reconciliation Fund strategy, we are committed to supporting work that through dialogue or other means, seeks to build understanding between peoples and traditions within Northern Ireland, North-South and East/West.”

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