Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Absence of south Armagh reps on new SOAR group “unfathomable”

South Armagh may miss out on vital funding for rural projects due to the fact that there is no geographical representation for the area on the newly-appointed SOAR (Southern Organisation for Action in Rural Areas) local action group, its chairman, Miceal McCoy, has claimed.

Ahead of council boundary changes, an election was held during last week to appoint members to a new Local Action Group (LAG) for Newry, Mourne and Down Council.  However, Mr McCoy has claimed the election process was flawed and, despite the willingness of a number of experienced representatives from the south Armagh area – including himself – to be involved, he says it is “unfathomable” that they were overlooked.

Speaking to The Examiner, Mr McCoy slammed the lack of south Armagh representation as a “downright disgrace”: “There is £11.18million to be expended for the next six years and there is no geographical representation for south Armagh – it’s a downright disgrace.

“The [election] process was totally flawed; it was so rushed and there was no engagement with the existing people, no time for people even to network at their relationships to create a new local action group made up of experienced members.”

With an impressive track record for securing vital funding for the south Armagh area, including a new Community Centre for Culloville and renovation of the Crossmaglen facility, and given the fact that the Newry and Mourne contingent of the Local Action Group in SOAR secured over £8million of the £17 million available for rural projects, Mr McCoy says he finds it “unfathomable” that himself and LAG member Pauline McGovern, as well as a number of other people from community associations who put themselves forward, missed out on the chance to represent their area in the coming year.

Blaming the fact that no one from south Armagh is on the social partners of the new Local Action Group on a “fundamentally flawed process” by which new members were elected, he said public meetings to animate for LAG members were scarcely publicized, leading to poor turnout and an unfair advantage with over half of the 278 electorate coming from the Down district, adding that the voting process itself was not user-friendly as it assumed voters were computer literate enough to scan and email their vote.

“In no way whatsoever do I blame the electorate for voting for the people that they knew and respected from their own community, I blame the lack of engagement with existing LAGs and the lack of empowerment at the local level.  There needed to be more animation and work at the local level to ensure we got this right,” he said.

SOAR has overall responsibility for the administration of the Rural Development Programme (RDP) and its Chief Executive, Teresa Canavan, defended the process of setting up the Local Action Groups.

In a statement, she revealed the process began in October last year with a series of four public meetings held throughout the new council area.  A total of 269 people attended these meetings, 31 of whom were present at the Crossmaglen event on 1st December.

Ms Canavan said the Newry, Mourne and Down area has 278 registered members and from a membership meeting last month, 26 Board members were determined from nomination forms received.

“Following this meeting, the 26 eligible Board nominations were put to the members vote.  All 278 members were issued with information relating to the 26 candidates and invited to vote by Monday 2nd February 2015.  A total of 135 voting papers were received, representing 49% of the registered Membership,” she said.

“Appointments were made against the agreed composition of members based on the highest combination of votes received.  Members agreed the geographic criteria at Local Government District level (i.e. Newry & Mourne Council area and Down District Council area).  No further geographic criteria was requested.”

Ms Canavan confirmed a request for clarification has been submitted by Mr McCoy and is “currently being progressed”.