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West Tyrone – the most deprived constituency in Northern Ireland

Omagh, Northern Ireland (Alamy)

4 min read

The failure to replace lost European Union funding, the spiralling cost of living and the Democratic Unionist Party’s blockade of the executive in the north of Ireland have converged to create a perfect storm for rural communities.

Just as people started to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been hit with the soaring costs of living and the DUP’s refusal to work with the other parties to shield people from the worst impacts of the crisis. 

For the first time in many years an incoming executive had the power to set a three-year budget, which could have given health and our other governments departments the ability to plan ahead.

Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party in last May’s elections with party vice president Michelle O’Neill becoming the first minister designate, the first time in the history of the northern state that a nationalist/republican was entitled to hold this post.

The DUP’s refusal to respect the outcome of that election, form an executive and agree a budget, has made it impossible for rural groups to plan ahead. They are unsure if funding will be available to continue delivering services to some of the most deprived and isolated people. 

This has been compounded by the hard Tory Brexit, which was rejected by a majority of people in the north who voted to stay in the European Union and who have been dragged out of the EU against their democratically expressed will. With each passing day, the damaging economic and societal impacts of the Tory Brexit have become more apparent.  

Brexit has deprived the north of millions of pounds of EU funding. The British government told us that lost EU funding would be matched. However, we now face a shortfall of £90m from EU Structural Funding compared to what the north will now receive through the so-called “Shared Prosperity Fund”.

EU funding supported the growth of small businesses, the transition to a zero-carbon economy, provided programmes which helped people to gain skills and find employment, and helped reduce poverty and rural isolation. We are now looking at further detrimental economic and social impacts as well as setting back our efforts to tackle the climate emergency.

To add insult to injury, the British government is administering the United Kingdom Community Renewal Fund over the heads of local councils, LEADER groups (a European Community initiative) and government departments, courtesy of the UK Internal Markets Act (2020) which gives them the power to do so. This is not the situation in Wales or Scotland where local authorities take the lead on the Community Renewal Fund but here in the north, Westminster manages the fund centrally with no involvement of local representatives or communities.

This is unfair, undemocratic and runs completely against the principle of community-led local development which has been a hallmark of the Rural Development Programme across the EU for decades. Rural communities here are experiencing a perfect storm generated by global issues and Brexit, with the failure to form an executive making the situation even worse.

The DUP needs to get around the table with the rest of the parties to provide much-needed support to beleaguered communities. And the British government needs to seriously engage in the political negotiations with the EU. They must work to achieve durable and pragmatic solutions in the operation of the Protocol contained in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the British government and the EU.

They must ensure that our businesses, farmers, manufacturers and retailers continue to benefit from the Protocol and its opportunities which protect our all-island economy and retains access to the British and EU Single Markets.

And it is beyond time the British government set aside its partisan support for the DUP and worked with all the parties and the Irish government to restore the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in the interests of all our citizens.

Órfhlaith Begley is the Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone.

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