EXCLUSIVE: Over £30,000 of Fresh Start funding earmarked to help women affected by paramilitarism is being used to fund a lavish trip to New York

Unionist Voice has discovered that Fresh Start funding- the relevant strand of which is designed to assist vulnerable women affected by paramilitarism- is being used for a lavish week-long trip to New York

The tax payer has been subjected to a relentless media campaign of adverts and press releases about tackling paramilitarism. Most people probably thought this was all about tackling organised crime, helping victims and making communities safer.

The tackling paramilitarism programme originated in the Fresh Start agreement of November 2015 where it set out the Executive’s commitment to tackling paramilitary activity and associated criminality. It set up an independent three-person panel- ‘the Fresh Start Panel’ – to make recommendations on the disbandment of paramilitary groups. Its report was published in June 2016.

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The Executive responded to the Panel’s report with the Executive Action Plan for Tackling Paramilitarism, Criminality and Organised Crime which was published on 19 July 2016. It contains 43 commitments in response to the Panel’s recommendations. This includes a specific programme to support women and to encourage their contribution to the process. The broad aim of the Women’s Programme was to address Section A paragraph 3.9 of the Fresh Start Agreement which recommends the following;

“To develop a programme to increase the participation and influence of women in community development”.

Following the completion of the open procurement competition for the women’s program the Department for Communities awarded the contract of up to £750,000 to a consortium called the Women’s Intervention Partnership (WIP) as the successful delivery agent for its programme for Women Involved in Community Transformation (WICT). The WIP is made up of the following organisations – Training for Women Network (TWN); Co-operation Ireland; Foyle Womens Information Network (FWIN); and Intercomm. Work was initially for 2 financial years (2017/2018 and 2018/2019) with a possible extension to 31st March 2021 (subject to positive evaluation). The in-year funding for 18/19 was £375,000.

Projects awarded ‘Fresh Start’ funding must work to the 4 key principles

  • The public support and confidence in the justice system
  • Building safer and more confident communities
  • Supporting those who want to move away from paramilitary activity and structures
  • A commitment to the belief that paramilitarism has no place

Despite trawling through the endless information on the DfC and Department of Justice websites about the outworking of this fund, nowhere is there a need identified to send 33 people to New York for a week to attend a conference.

The Department initially engaged with key stakeholders from the Voluntary and Community Sector to consider the need for a multi-year programme that would skill up and develop women who wish to become more involved in community development. Participants who were consulted do not recall international travel opportunities to be part of the upskilling.  Unionist Voice has been told that what they did expect was activities to cover a spectrum of areas as diverse as: health and wellbeing, the justice system, peace building and leadership.  An initial proposal setting out a modular learning and development approach was considered by a Cross Departmental Programme Board tasked with co-ordinating and monitoring the implementation of the Fresh Start Agreement’s commitments.  People who engaged in the process understood this to be a about supporting disadvantaged women.

Department for Communities co-design process highlighted the need for an additional Early Intervention Programme for women in community development, which aimed to identify groups of disengaged women and equip them to engage fully and fruitfully in DfC’s main contribution to the Fresh Start Agreement, which is now in full swing.   Target areas were identified using information and statistics on on-going paramilitary activity and ongoing influence.

It is not clear therefore how well over £30,000 of this funding has been diverted to send 33 people to a conference in New York. One source told Unionist Voice “Sceptics amongst us may speculate that maybe it’s just that time of year, where money is ‘found’ and needs spent before the end of March.  Sceptics could also suggest, if the jolly across the Atlantic was planned for some time, savings could be made to ensure this ‘underspend’ was available”.

Our source continued “we should not forget what this money was intended to do. Community projects are being cut right left and centre, making efficiency savings, with an emphasis on being able to justify spend, which is not perceived excessive, to the extent that you cannot make a cup of tea at a meeting.  Many projects are finding this trip hard to swallow when you consider that cuts of up to 50% were implemented on projects supporting women and children in the 18/19 year yet this transatlantic trip is reasonable and value for money”.

Another disgruntled worker said “talk about paramilitary racketeering, this is beyond a joke, particularly when you know what this money was intended to do. This is community racketeering”.

Unionist Voice has obtained a list of 33 of those selected for the lavish trip to New York. Among the travelling party- funded with Fresh Start money designed to assist women- is a prominent male Sinn Fein member linked to Intercomm.

Questions have also been raised about how the 33 participants for the lavishly funded trip were selected. Our source said “How can the Department be satisfied the ‘lucky 33’ doesn’t consist of hand-picked people, because allegedly over a third are members of back office staff (with little or no women’s support experience) or relatives of those selecting the ‘lucky 33’, a far cry from ‘ordinary women’ this fund was established to support”.

It is understood that any money which is underspent to this level should be redeployed into direct work to support vulnerable women across NI who have been affected by paramilitarism or had their life chances impacted. There is understandably considerable disquiet amongst organisations who are doing this grass roots work day in day out at the perceived inappropriate use of this money, especially as many of the women the fund is set up to support are living in disadvantaged communities, on benefits or suffering during the introduction of Welfare Reform and Universal Credit.

Departmental documents would indicate over 500 women have engaged on the programme so far, it is not clear therefore what criteria was used to select those who will benefit from the lavish trip to New York.

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