Minister Peter Weir has been invited to visit closure-threatened Bushmills Outdoor Education Centre.
It was issued by North Antrim TUV MLA Jim Allister during Tuesday’s debate in the Assembly on the future of the facility, which is one of four in Northern Ireland earmarked for axing under an Education Authority rationalisation plan.
Mr Allister told the chamber: “I must say, I do not understand why the powers that be want to destroy a success story. That is what Bushmills is and has been for generations. Of particular concern — it raises my suspicions — is the manner of the process deployed here. First, there is a supposed review, and Bushmills is fifth on the list, and, because that seems to put three County Down centres at the top of the list, it is suddenly rejigged, and Bushmills is third.”
Referring to the £1.3 million projected saving from the closures, the TUV leader asked: “But will it? In fact, the £1·3 million will simply be redirected within the Youth Service. This will not save one penny of the minister’s overall budget.
“Who have been the key beneficiaries of the scheme? Some of the most deprived kids in our schools, who are low in self-esteem and self-worth. They get a weekend or a few days at a centre such as this and suddenly they discover that they, who feel that they have always been put down, have got an interest. There is something good that they can do. There are things that they are good at. They leave those centres believing in themselves. That is worth far more than £1·3 million, yet that is the balance in which we are putting that achievement.
“The minister needs to get a grip on this. I invite him to come to Bushmills and visit the centre when it is in full operation. I visited it last Friday. Others have also visited it. I would like him to see, feel and experience the commitment, dedication and output before he is a party to the closure of such a marvellous venture.”
Towards the conclusion of the debate Mr Allister again challenged the minister, who was in the chamber, on the projected savings.
In response, Mr Weir said: “If there have to be savings across the board, EA in particular will probably face a lot of the pressures because the principal responsibility is to protect front-line services in the aggregated schools budget as much as possible. There will be gaps. It can be dressed up as being redirected, but gaps will be plugged. From that point of view, if £1·3 million is not saved in one area, it will have to be saved elsewhere. That is the economic reality of the situation.”