Foundations and Brexit: A view from… Northern Ireland

In this series, we are taking a closer look at what Brexit means for foundations. We will include perspectives from across the UK and from funders with a number of specialisms and approaches. Although the situation changes daily and the implications are still uncertain, this series will explore some of the thoughts and reactions from within the sector. The fourth article in our series comes from Andrew McCracken, Chief Executive of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.


A view from… Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland there are many political sensitivities in talking about Brexit, with the leave/remain split being mostly along traditional political divisions. In the community foundation and wider voluntary and community sector there are three headline issues that people are worried about – the border, funding, and the deep divisions within society highlighted by Brexit.

The question of the border is both economic and political. Thousands of businesses trade across the border, on large and small scale. For example, there is a Coca Cola bottling plant north of the border that bottles Coke for all of Ireland. It goes right down to tiny local economics of individuals – where you buy your petrol, whether you prefer to shop in euros or pounds. There has been a notable difference even in the last few months, with a positive trend of people from the south coming to buy in the north because of the exchange rate.

At the moment the border is invisible, but if there is a hard border that requires customs checks, lorries to be searched every time they cross, that will be an economic disaster. This is widely agreed. But the kind of border we have depends on the negotiation between the EU and the UK government in London.

The political dimension is that nationalists who want a united Ireland will find any appearance of a border, however symbolic, very offensive. People are concerned that this might raise issues of violence and paramilitary backlash. I think it is unwise to talk up these concerns too much, but we must acknowledge that a very open border contributed to creating the peaceful society we are now.

The second major concern is the loss of funding – Northern Ireland has benefited massively from the EU, gaining hundreds of millions to support the peace process, with tens of thousands of that coming through to the community foundation. Plus 80% of farming income comes from subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy, not to mention what we have gained from European Social Funding. While EU funding to the voluntary and community sector is in the tens of millions, compared to the half a billion from the UK government or Stormont, it is still considered very significant.

Finally, Brexit points to the deeper divides in society. Here there is a four-way split between rich and poor, and orange and green, giving four different quadrants and there is a different Brexit story for each of those quadrants. The community foundation has been massively involved in peace building over the past 30 years, but the next 30 years should be for us to concentrate more on the divide between rich and poor, and less on orange and green. Communities feel disadvantaged, marginalised, on the edge – that is what should be informing our grant-making.

The questions over what will replace EU funding do not affect the foundation’s resources or programmes, at least in the short-term, as we ceased to be an intermediary for EU funding two years ago. But there are community and voluntary groups who are delivering EU programmes who don’t know what is going to happen next, and what funding the UK government will guarantee.

We have recently produced Vital Signs, a community foundation framework to help us think about how we prioritise our grant-making and how we advise donors and funders on making grants. We are still at the early stages of filtering our grant-making strategy through the framework, but we do know that it will focus very strongly on trying to address issues of poverty, health and wellbeing that came out as priorities in the report.

These problems are driven by the poor economy, so if it gets worse, that will have an impact on those who are least well-off. While the economy has been improving in the last 20 years, the gap between rich and poor has got bigger, and it is the poorer communities who tend to be most affected by the conflict. Intelligent funders need to look at what they can do to unlock potential in those communities.

Northern Ireland’s economy is unsustainable – we take around £10 billion a year in taxes, and the public sector costs are around £20 billion, so we are very dependent on the block grant from the UK government, which has been progressively cut over the last few years.

Two-thirds of the working population is either employed by the public sector or delivering services paid for by the public sector. Clearly we need to build more private enterprise, but it is hard to see that Brexit will make it more attractive for companies to invest in Northern Ireland. We need to grow our abilities to innovate, to take risks, to be creative. The VCS needs to encourage innovation both in the public sector and in how we approach social problems. So the most important intervention independent funders can make is to help people to take risks, accepting that they might fail – whether that is building an app that will change the world or a new scheme to employ people with disabilities to have a social impact.


Andrew McCracken
Chief Executive
Community Foundation for Northern Ireland


Other articles in this series:

A view from… Scotland 
A view from... arts & culture funding 
A view from... science funding 
A view from... Wales  
A view from... medical research 
A view from... environmental funding 
A view from... Europe 

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