North’s department overlooked equality tests in Irish language scheme
Department for Communities failed to comply with equality commitments in funding
The cancellation of the scheme was one of the final disputes between the DUP and Sinn Féin that eventually collapsed Stormont in January 2017. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Stormont’s Department for Communities (DfC) failed to carry out necessary equality tests before cutting a £50,000 Irish language bursary scheme for disadvantage children, an inquiry has found.
An Equality Commission investigation, published on Friday, found DfC had failed to comply with its approved Equality Scheme commitments on screening and equality impact assessment relating to funding decisions for the Líofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme for 2017 and the £1.9 million Community Halls Pilot Programme.
The £50,000 scheme was controversially withdrawn in December 2016. A circular from the department, headed by the then DUP minister Paul Givan, said: “Because of efficiency savings, the department will not be providing the Líofa bursary scheme in 2017. Happy Christmas and Happy New Year.”
It was subsequently reinstated in January 2017.
Mr Givan said at the time his suspension of the scheme “ was not a political decision”.
The cancellation of the scheme was one of the final disputes between the DUP and Sinn Féin that eventually collapsed Stormont in January 2017, with the resignation of the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
Chief Equality Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said in the development and implementation of policies, due regard should be given to the need to promote equality of opportunity.
He said the commission investigation found the department did not undertake screening and equality impact assessment at appropriate times to inform the development and decision making, and that Mr Givan “was not furnished with appropriate equality assessment information”.
The commission has asked the department to report back on a number of recommendations it has made in six months time.
Sinn Féin MLA Declan Kearney welcomed the report’s findings and said scrapping the bursary was “an appalling decision which was widely seen within the nationalist community as a blatant sectarian and cynical act”.
Mr Kearney said the case “goes to the heart of the DUP’s ongoing refusal to share power on the basis of equality, respect and integrity and this clearly needs to be addressed if any new Executive is going to enjoy public support and confidence”.
However, Mr Givan said the findings had vindicated his position, that they contradicted Sinn Féin’s “outrageous claims . . . that my decision was discriminatory”and he called on the party to apologise .
A DfC statement said: “The Department has noted the contents and recommendations contained within the Equality Commission’s report. The Department will continue to work to ensure that it adheres to all its statutory equality obligations.”
Disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin over an Irish language act is one of the key stumbling blocks to Stormont being restored.