Concerns over SIF processes won’t go away despite motion defeat

I spoke in the Assembly this morning in support of a motion calling for an independent review of the Social Investment Fund. The motion was defeated by 53 votes to 38.
My colleague Nichola Mallon has outlined our consistent concerns about the process; the lack of open tender, the multi-layered conflicts of interest, the unsustainability of the fund, and the consistently opaque responses of OFMDFM to legitimate queries.

We have also placed on record again our discomfort that good projects and good people are in the shade due to the Executive’s failure to deal with these concerns – and government speaker after government speaker highlighting good projects are repeatedly failing to deal with the substantive concerns raised, and immorally use these people and projects as cover.

I think it is worth highlighting the DUP’s acknowledgement of these concerns, reflected in their unaccepted amendment to today’s motion – which accepted “deep public concern” regarding the formation, implementation and operation of the SIF. So, not just concerns about one project in East Belfast, but all aspects of the scheme, and not just concern, but deep concern.

If they acknowledge this, how can they reject an independent review? I’m disappointed the SDLP/UUP amendment wasn’t taken – if these processes are as robust as the Executive claims, what have they to fear from an audit of this programme?

The SDLP’s concerns about the SIF are not new. The Fund began as part campaign ruse – two months out from the 2011 Assembly elections – part power grab, the ostensible aims of SIF being much more compatible with Neighbourhood renewal in DSD and employability schemes in DEL – except that these departments were inconveniently headed by SDLP and Alliance Ministers.

Mr Lynch says that Alex Attwood two years ago referred to this as a paramilitary slush fund – in fact the SDLP made that point in this chamber as far back as March 2011 and the concerns we raised then have not yet been addressed.

The process ‘flaws’ highlighted here are of course not oversights, but, as Martin McGuiness said in this Assembly last month, SIF is “working exactly as planned”, to – as well as some of the more laudable aims – facilitate exactly the outcomes that it has, which is public money being passed on to preferred partners.

And the character of some of these preferred partners troubles many people. We’re told these are groups facilitating transition but with no clarity or deadline as to when these groups definitely become former paramilitaries.

Let’s be clear – it remains true that just because you have a past, doesn’t mean you can’t have a future, but it is time we collectively agreed that you shouldn’t be paid from the public purse to be the future while simultaneously being the past.

People accepted, for the greater good, that those involved in paramilitarism could be equally part of NI’s future, but we didn’t vote in 1998 for the elitism and patronage we have seen since, which elevates former paramilitaries above their neighbours and retrospectively sanitises their past and their present.

Two decades after the ceasefires, and with all but a handful out of jail a heck of a lot longer than they were in, the time for rewards and incentives for good behaviour are long since past.

As much as anything, this debate is about the continued failing of the Executive to tackle paramilitarism, and the out of date groupthink of co-opting the problem makers, that is making some organised criminals a permanent part of our community infrastructure.

The summer’s three-person panel report was abundantly clear that those who receive public money should be a ‘consistent good example’ to their communities. Is that the description the DUP would apply to macho man Dee Stitt who doesn’t just unguardedly admit, but arrogantly boasts, of representing the views of UDA men and being homeland security?

If the Executive won’t stand down that toy solider, what confidence are we to have about their will or ability to face down the hundreds of other paramilitaries? Handing over new buildings, paying six figure sums for them to manage other more experienced groups, posing for photographs – these actions are the Executive handing power, status and influence to the same thugs who are oppressing and dragging down the neighbourhoods SIF professes to help. Sending vulnerable residents to these same people for renewal and employment advice is unbelievably unfair.

We are with the Executive in seeing the need in disadvantaged communities but the solution is not paying off the gatekeepers. There are tried and tested good projects to spend this money well, who have fought against paramilitary corrosion. And there are policing and justice tools to deal with those who exacerbate problems with drug dealing, extortion, prostitution and loan sharking.

It is time the Executive demonstrated they know the difference.