Anna Lo MLA said: “The Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, announced recently that she is to cut around 70% of the department’s community relations budget from £3.6 million in 2009/10 to £1.1 million for this financial year to meet her efficiency savings.
“The Department, through its community relations branch, has responsibility for the promotion of good community relations among young people in the age range from 3 to 25 in the education and youth service sector. Previously, it provided funding for 26 community relations organisations, a schools’ CR programme and two youth service support schemes. The 26 core-funded organisations are grant-aided until the end of May with no clarification if funding will continue. There are concerns that the reduced budget will decimate the expertise that has been built up throughout the school system and in the voluntary sector.
“According to the Minister, the bulk of the funding for this year will be used in preparation for the implementation of the new community relations, Equality and Diversity policy which she plans to adopt in the current financial year. However, the draft policy has not yet been published for consultation and it will be months before the new policy can be established to replace the department’s old community relations policy which it has now ceased to support. Clearly, there is a vacuum in policy direction from the department.
“One of the key strategic priorities in the Programme for Government is to ‘promote tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being’. OFMDFM has also produced the draft Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy albeit two and a half years late. We therefore must question the Minister’s rationale in slashing funding when there is a clear strategic drive by Government to address community relations.
“The divisions in our society continue to result in huge social and economic costs. It is vital that our children and young people have the opportunity to develop understanding of different cultural traditions.
“Despite political progress in recent years, sectarian and racist attitudes, in addition to deeply grained patterns of segregation and inequality, remain major problems in our divided society.
“Feedback from the Equality Commission following a series of seminars held with teachers and education stakeholders in 2008, identified the fact that many school teachers had concerns with addressing good relations issues at school, due to either a lack of training or fear of the consequences of addressing the issue. A diminished community relations budget allocation is hardly like to help build capacity in schools.
“I hope this debate will give members the opportunity to air their concerns and send out a more positive message that we all care about community relations in Northern Ireland.”