Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada has accused the government of strangling funding to rural Ireland.
The Ireland South MEP made the comments in the wake of the discovery that just 0.3% of the 2014-2020 LEADER Programme funding has been spent.
Ms, Ní Riada, who sits on the EU Budgets Committee and has worked extensively with local communities on their difficulties with LEADER, said it was clear the Government has been systematically suffocating the programme.
“The Government’s gross mishandling of the LEADER Programme has gone on for so long and has had so many different facets to it that the question must be asked whether the damage they are doing to the programme is a result of incompetent negligence or malicious intent,” she said.
“Under the tutelage of Fine Gael and their Fianna Fail partners, LEADER has gone from being the envy of every other industry in the country, a bottom up, community driven fund that yielded tangible results for ignored communities, to an impenetrable bureaucratic nightmare so convoluted that smaller community groups don’t even bother applying for it any more.
“They have chipped away at everything that made it accessible to communities and then of course lets not forget last year’s scandal in which they moved €10m out of the LEADER budget to pay for measures under the Local Improvement Scheme.
“We wouldn’t even have known about this outrageous underspend had it not been for the work of Sinn Féin TDs Carol Nolan and Martin Kenny, who discovered that the programme has only paid out €661,844 or 0.3% of the €250 million European Fund, as compared with 4.4% of a €400m fund paid during the same 18 month period of the previous programme.
“At a time when the Government is claiming it doesn’t have the money to address serious crises in public services, health and housing, there is a €250m pot of money for rural Ireland that they are preventing people from accessing.
“In fact if this is not spent by December 2020, and at this pace there is simply no way it could be, it goes back to the EU. The Government would rather see this vast sum of money go back into the European pot than into the hands of rural Irish communities. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are strangling rural Ireland, you can draw no other conclusion from the evidence.
“Minister Ring needs to explain himself immediately to the countless communities up and down the country that are crying out for the services, infrastructure and equipment that LEADER was intended to provide and tell them why he feels that money, which has already been drastically cut, is better off in Brussels than in Bantry or Bunclody.”