Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Ring of Gullion thrown funding lifeline from bag levy

The future of Northern Ireland’s environmental groups has been thrown a temporary lifeline after Environment Minister Mark Durkan agreed to fund natural heritage grants with £1m from the carrier bag levy pot.

Following a meeting with the Environment Minister where he confirmed his publicly stated intention to use the carrier bag levy to offset the devastating cuts to environmental projects, representatives from the Northern Ireland Protected Areas Network met with Mr Durkan’s advisor last Thursday to discuss how the £1m will be distributed and to clarify the process involved in qualifying for the new funds.

The Ring of Gullion AONB was particularly affected by the cuts to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) budget announced at the end of last month, losing 100% of its NIEA funding.  The move caused widespread concern sparking an online petition to restore funding for the Ring of Gullion and prompting Sinn Fein’s Newry and Armagh MLA Mickey Brady to table a motion for an adjournment debate on the issue last week.

Mr Brady said cutting the group’s budget entirely meant that it not only lost out on NIEA funding but also “couldn’t apply to draw down funding from other sources, something it was doing quite successfully.”

“In fact for every £1 it received from the NIEA it was drawing down £5 from other sources; drawing down more than £1.5million in total that it used to maintain and promote the Ring of Gullion AONB.  A pretty big return for a relatively small investment of £43,000,” explained Mr Brady.

“The loss of the AONB Officer also means there is no one to monitor damage to the Slieve Gullion Special Area of Conservation, something that could result in hefty EU fines,” he added.

“The Ring of Gullion is not like other AONB’s that had their funding cut.  Places like the Mournes and the Belfast Hills are funded well enough from other sources that they can absorb this cut and survive. The Ring of Gullion can’t.  If this cut is allowed to go ahead unchallenged it will be to the detriment of the entire south Armagh area.”

Following successful meetings with Minister Durkan and his department advisors, Landscape Partnership Manager of the Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership Scheme, Darren Rice said the funding pledge looked set “to ameliorate what only a few short weeks ago appeared to be a dire funding situation” but warned that the group “still have a journey to make in terms of putting together a workable budget for the Ring of Gullion in the coming year.”

Speaking to The Examiner, Mr Rice said Thursday’s workshop had facilitated the discussion of a number of issues including the Challenge Fund and the Natural Environment Grant – a new fund set up for environmental NGOs, and Landscape Managers to apply to.

“At the minute the Challenge fund has £550,000 and the Natural Environment Fund has £1m,” Darren explained.

“The sector believe the environment would benefit having a lower Challenge Fund and a higher Natural Environment Grant.”

Currently the Ring of Gullion project is prevented from applying to the Challenge Fund.

“The sector, including the Ring of Gullion, works with the community at every level, and we are working with schools all over south Armagh,” said Darren.

“We believe that banning us, and others like us, from applying to the Challenge fund would be nonstrategic and hope that this would be reversed to allow everyone who was eligible last year to apply to both funds.”

Mr Rice added that the sector had asked the Minister to allow for up to 75% funding in the Natural Environment Grant as opposed to the current NIEA recommendations that the DOE fund no more than 50% of any one application.

“We would like the Minister to give assurance that he will make strong arguments at the monitoring rounds for additional money for the DOE, the hardest hit department. We would also ask that the Voluntary Exit Scheme savings would be made available through the Challenge Fund,” said Darren.

Mr Durkan’s Advisor has brought back the recommendations from Thursday’s meeting and the environmental groups await a response from the Minister on the wider funding issues discussed.