Future of established cross community youth programme in jeopardy after Brexit transition period ends

REACH (Residentials Educational Activities and Community Holidays) Across, a cross community youth group based in the heart of Derry-Londonderry, was due to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. However, a new threat overshadows these celebrations, as its most sought-after experience – a trip away on an international exchange – is now at risk due to the uncertainty of the organisations’ eligibility to apply for Erasmus funding.

The Brexit transition period ends at the end of this year, and no guidance has been made regarding Erasmus funding. Main organiser of REACH Across, Barney McGuigan, expressed his thoughts and worries on this uncertain period and going forward into the future. “For us to complete our most recent international exchange programme with Hungary and Cyprus, for us to host and if our two groups had gone to Hungary and Cyprus the amount that was awarded from Erasmus was €72,000,” Barney tells me.

The first REACH Across trip to Cyprus, funded by Erasmus in March 2016.

Erasmus funding for REACH Across international exchange programmes means that these trips are a lot more affordable therefore accessible for many families than international school trips. “The small cost we charge in just in case we end up going over budget with our local stage activities.” The loss of Erasmus funding may cause these costs to skyrocket, excluding many young people financially for whom this may have been a rare opportunity to go abroad.

This most recent international exchange with Cyprus and Hungary was delayed with the COVID-19 pandemic, with the two Derry groups still in the dark as to whether they will be able to complete this international exchange programme. “We did the local stage; the two groups came here and had a fantastic time. The Halloween festival was in full swing and they took part in the parade. We were going to go to the international stages at Easter and then lockdown happened just a couple of weeks before easter, we targeted September and that was not realistic,” Barney expressed.

Two years ago, REACH Across were given a guarantee of Erasmus funding until the end of the withdrawal period, until the end of 2020. “I have no idea where things are headed now at the minute I don’t know if we’re eligible to apply in 2021.” Barney stressed to me that “we’re a bit in the dark about what happens after Brexit. There has been hope that REACH Across will be eligible for reconciliation funding through Peace programmes, however they have severe doubts as to the level of funding they would receive, “We’ve been told to apply for Peace 4+ which will focus on reconciliation work, but we don’t think much of this money will apply to Derry.”

International exchange programmes have become an integral part of REACH Across and its legacy, as many of those who go on these trips form the leadership of REACH Across in future years. “The Croatia exchange really stood out the two groups were rally phenomenal. After that we would have had 8 or 9 members stayed on as leaders from that group,” Barney reminisced.

Some key members within REACH Across, Tiernan McHugh, Anna McElhinney and Caitlin Doherty spoke about their experiences with REACH Across international exchanges and their worriers for the future.

Left to right: Tiernan McHugh, Anna McElhinney and Caitlin Doherty

Tiernan stated that “I didn’t know what it was going to be like because I hadn’t been away before without my family. It grew my confidence, the friendships we got were immense. I don’t think there’s anything better than an international friendship.”

Anna backed this up, as she described how without going on the international exchange “I would never have built my confidence, I was so quiet.” Anna described her worries for the future of these international exchanges due to the uncertainty around applications for Erasmus funding, “I hope it continues, my little sister she’s in REACH Across now and that is her foal, to get away on a trip because she knows what it was like for me.”

Caitlin was supposed to go on the most recent, delayed, international programme. Erasmus had confirmed they would extend the deadline for this international exchange due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she stated that she has “no clue” as to the possibility of future exchanges.

These members feared for the future of REACH Across and its scale in popularity as the international exchange “is the goal that everyone works towards. Its everyone’s favourite parts and it is not fair for people to miss out like that. The international exchanges are the REACH Across experience.” Anna stated.

Organiser Barney McGuigan backed up this fear, as he explained how on school visits to advertise the project to new members “we want to show all the international footage and end the presentation by saying this year we are going to Cyprus, we are going to Hungary and that’s a key part of it.”

REACH Across organiser Barney McGuigan presenting in secondary schools to recruit new members

Barney looked back in fondness at “the number of friendships and the number of people who say it was an amazing experience and it had done so much for them.” Caitlin added to this saying how “all the people that joined this year have their hopes up and have stayed through lockdown with going away with REACH Across in mind and they now don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Whilst a guarantee was given to provide Erasmus funding through the 2020 withdrawal period for the UK exit of the European Union, there has been no guarantee from either Westminster or the Northern Irish Executive in securing this funding or matching it if Northern Irish groups are no longer eligible to apply for Erasmus funding. REACH Across has been crucial in building cross community relations among the young people of Derry for the past 25 years. Those who get to enjoy the experience of the international exchanges are shaped by the positive and confidence building experiences they have and their fears over its future are wholly justified.