“Funding is a constant worry,” says Mícheál Clear, the project leader with the Aisling Project in Ballymun, which runs five after-school services in Ballymun.

Children are referred to the service. They get help with homework support, a hot dinner and the opportunity to take part in a wide range of activities, he says.

Activities include trips to museums, parks and playgrounds, he says. This summer’s plans include Newgrange Farm, ziplining and a water park.

“The child knows on a consistent basis they have a warm and welcoming environment to come into every day,” says Clear.

“The programme is a long-term intervention,” says Clear. Children can use the service from age seven through their teenage years.

But like 19 other organisations offering social and community services in Ballymun, the Aisling Project relies partly on funding drawn from the Ballymun Social Regeneration Fund, the future of which is uncertain.

“Each year we are concerned about the future of the funding we receive from the Ballymun Regeneration Fund,” says Clear.

The Ballymun Social Regeneration Fund has existed for more than a decade, first fully funded by the Department of Housing and more recently by Dublin City Council.

Now, councillors – who say the council is cash-strapped – want the central government to take back responsibility, arguing that many of the projects have become core services.

Alongside this back and forth, there is confusion over a separate one-off €2 million pot promised in December by then Taoiseach Micheál Martin to implement a more recent plan, the “Ballymun: A Brighter Future” report.

That funding, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing, has said, is to be tied to new housing in the neighbourhood.

It’s a restriction that has left the report’s author scratching his head, given the “Ballymun: A Brighter Future” report warns against adding more families with social needs into the area until sufficient mental-health, educational and social services are in place.

When Does a Regeneration End?

The Ballymun Social Regeneration Fund was launched in 2012, signalling a commitment to social and community services on top of the state’s bricks-and-mortar rebuild of the north Dublin suburb.

It was fully funded up to 2017 by the Department of Housing, but since then the department has tapered off funding, leaving it wholly funded since 2021 by Dublin City Council.

At a finance committee meeting in January, Dublin city councillors talked about funding complications though, and how to ensure projects are stable going forward.

When the council was looking to make cuts ahead of agreeing its current annual budget, this fund was on the list, said Sinn Féin Councillor Séamas McGrattan at the January meeting of the committee.

“As our budgets get tighter and tighter going forward, it’s probably inevitable that something like this is going to get cut,” he said.

Councillors agreed that McGrattan, as committee chair, should write to the central government to try to get them to take on funding these projects into the future, some of which they argue are core services and so should be funded centrally.

Since then, the council has been in a back and forth with the central government.

In February, McGrattan wrote to six government departments and the Taoiseach, asking that the central government take responsibility for funding the services that fall within their remit.

An official in the office of Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien wrote back in May that as the physical regeneration of Ballymun is complete, it can’t keep funding the social regeneration programme.

The years-long Ballymun regeneration programme, made up of 24 projects, was done in 2016, said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing recently.

From 1999 to 2016, the Department spent around €775.3 million on that, they said.

“Social regeneration funding for community initiatives in Ballymun were funded by this Department up to and including 2020,” he says.

It’s “not possible to continue to provide funding for the social regeneration programme indefinitely from the Department of Housing exchequer allocations”, they said.

But the need for social services in Ballymun didn’t stop. Clear says the Aisling Project after-school services are oversubscribed.

The Aisling Project supports more than 150 children across its five centres but there are still more children in Ballymun who need the service, says Clear.

“Each child is treated with unconditional positive regard,” he says. That means that staff may challenge certain behaviours but they always show love and positivity towards the children and hold a positive attitude towards them as people.

“We think you are fantastic,” he says, summarising the message they try to send the children.

It can be hard to plan strategically for the future of the organisation without certainty about funding for next year and the funding has not increased to keep pace with the cost of living, he says.

Among the other projects that have got funding through the Ballymun Social Regeneration Fund this year are addiction services, a music programme, and a community law centre.

When the department dropped its funding for these Ballymun projects, the council stepped in and now provides €1.7 million per year. But that might not be sustainable forever, says McGrattan, the councillor, who chairs the finance committee.

Ballymun needs increased services, he says, not cuts. If any of those projects were cut “there would be a devastating effect”, he says.

“Ballymun: A Brighter Future”

Meanwhile, as letters go back and forth about the social regeneration fund, community workers are also confused about funding to roll-out the measures recommended in the “Ballymun: A Brighter Future” report, which aims to tackle the causes of addiction and crime in the community.

The report was authored by Andrew Montague, a community planner and former Labour councillor, and published in 2021.

In December, Fianna Fáil TD Michaél Martin, who was then Taoiseach, promised €2 million to fund social and recreational services following a meeting about the “Ballymun: A Brighter Future” report.

Montague says that in communities like Ballymun the vast majority of people are not involved in crime or anti-social behaviour, while the small number who are create major problems for everyone else.

Therapeutic interventions, such as multi-systemic therapy – a form of therapy aimed at supporting the primary caregiver of an at-risk young person – are proven to be effective in reducing offending among young people in Ireland, he says, but cost money. “We do know what works but we aren’t doing it.”

Those kinds of interventions are recommended in the report, which references Irish government research into improving outcomes for young offenders.

Another is for an educational programme for around 60 young people who have dropped out of school, as well as employing more social workers, gardaí, youth workers and family-resource workers.

In December 2022, the then Taoiseach, Michaél Martin, met with the North West Area Joint Policing Committee, which includes all the local councillors and TDs, to discuss Montague’s report.

Martin wrote to the committee afterwards. He would provide €2 million in funding to “support various initiatives and projects within the Ballymun area” through the Department of Housing, he said.

Dublin City Council would match that money too, he said. But, more recently, the Department of Housing has said that the money has to be tied to new housing projects.

“This Department is open to and would welcome any proposals from Dublin City Council for the provision of new housing and any associated social inclusion and community services in Ballymun that could be provided as part of these new housing developments,” said a department spokesperson.

Montague says the money should be used to provide the therapeutic, social and educational programmes that he envisaged as having the capacity to transform the area. The Department of Housing could do that as tenancy support, as most people are existing social tenants, he says.

Montague, who lives in Ballymun, says that the council disproportionately places high-need families in areas that have existing problems with anti-social behaviour, like Ballymun and Cherry Orchard.

“They have council houses in areas like Drumcondra. They would not put those families in those areas, because they know there would be a massive community and political backlash,” he says. “We are constantly being loaded with chaotic families.”

As such, the department should fund therapeutic intervention for those high-need families, he says. Investing €2 million in therapy for a small number of very high-need families in Ballymun would transform the place, he says.

The area does not need more investment in appearances, says Montague. “There is no other community in Ireland that has better public realm than Ballymun.”

Fianna Fáil Councillor Keith Connolly, who chairs the North West Area Joint Policing Committee, says that he hopes the Department of Housing funding could be used to provide buildings to roll out some of the programmes that Montague has recommended.

“We are looking for it to be a bit broader and a catalyst for bringing in other departments,” says Connolly.

Ballymun needs a high-level stakeholder forum, or taskforce like the one in the north-east inner-city, or the new taskforce in Cherry Orchard, says Connolly.

That way senior staff in government departments could get an understanding of the needs of the area, he says.

In Ballymun, around 60 young people aged between 10 and 15 are not in education or training, says Connolly.

Some of those kids may have learning difficulties or have experienced trauma. They are too young to attend the early school-leaver programme, Youthreach, which takes in teenagers from 16, says Connolly.

The €2 million could be used to provide a community centre for a new educational programme aimed at those kids, and the Department of Education could fund the teachers, he says.

“We want to bring in other departments to have that stakeholder group at a high level, to see what is possible to have a long-lasting effect,” says Connolly. “To improve the issues highlighted in the report.”

Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lneylon@dublininquirer.com.

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