Brexit: Thousands of jobs at risk in Northern Ireland due of failure to replace EU funds

Concerns have been raised again about the impact of lost EU funds as a result of Brexit.

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Failure to replace funding previously provided by the European Union’s Social Fund with money from the UK’s Levelling Up Fund has put more than 1,700 jobs in jeopardy in Northern Ireland, a conglomerate of community groups has warned.

Critical support services for the most vulnerable in society is also at risk as community groups which provide employment programmes for the disadvantaged and vulnerable are facing a funding ‘cliff edge’ because of the impasse between Westminster officials and Northern Ireland.

For more than a year, the European Social Fund (ESF) Peer Group, which represents 22 community groups across Northern Ireland, has been seeking a solution from Westminster departments and Stormont.

The ESF had previously provided around £40m a year. 35% was matched by Stormont, providing £54 of funding in total. In 2023, officials are expecting around £30m from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. However, match funding by Stormont has not yet been confirmed.

ESF Peer Group chair Rev Andrew Irvine, who is chief executive of East Belfast Mission, spoke of how everyone accepts that the work of the group’s members is invaluable to the most disadvantaged and marginalised in society, who find it difficult to access employment.

“Our members currently support over 17,000 vulnerable people and we’ve helped almost 12,000 people secure employment. But if we can’t secure continuity in funding, the 1,700 people who provide this support will face a very uncertain future,” said Rev Irvine.

He added that while a lot of good work has already taken place to secure funding, a “final agreement is still outstanding.”

A ‘moral obligation’

Joanne Kinnear, ESF Peer Group vice-chair and Ashton Trust chief executive said: “There’s a moral obligation to help those who find it difficult entering employment, maybe because they have a disability or have fled conflict overseas. We work with people who have so much to offer, but who need some extra support.

“Helping people into work, however, is not only good for them, but also the economy. Levels of economic inactivity are high in Northern Ireland and those in employment put less demand on public services, particularly the social care sector which is already stretched. Investing in these programmes saves money in the long-term,” Kinnear continued.

The consortium was due to meet with representatives from the UK government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) on October 14.

A government spokesperson said: “Northern Ireland is benefiting from £49m through our Levelling Up Fund, which is empowering communities to drive change.

“This is on top of £127m allocation from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to help those most vulnerable and furthest away from the labour market to secure sustainable employment, alongside other priorities.”

Lost EU funds

Previous concerns have been raised about lost EU funds in the wake of Brexit and the impact on Northern Ireland.

Invest NI, Northern Ireland’s economic development agency, had received substantial grants from an EU fund known as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The funding provided by the ERDF has not yet been replaced.

The UK government has previously promised that funding will be “ramped up” over time, so that EU provided funding will be matched by domestic UK-wide funding.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Image credit: Stux – Pixabay

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