Former UUP MLA blames Irish News for tyres on bonfire
A FORMER Ulster Unionist MLA has blamed The Irish News for thousands of tyres being put on a notorious loyalist bonfire embroiled in a funding scandal.
Adrian Cochrane-Watson claimed the council's "good work" had been undone as tyres make a return to the pyre at Ballycraigy estate in Antrim.
It comes after The Irish News last year exposed problems with a funding scheme for bonfire groups under the old Antrim Borough Council.
Thousands of pounds of ratepayers' cash intended for family events over the Twelfth was instead used to buy petrol and wooden pallets.
A damning report heavily criticised the initiative for exposing public money to an "increased risk of fraud".
The audit also expressed concern over Mr Cochrane-Watson's role in awarding a bouncy castle enterprise he is involved in almost £11,000 from the bonfire fund.
Mr Cochrane-Watson, who failed to be re-elected to Stormont in May, insisted he had never financially benefited from "social economy enterprise" Bouncy King.
The new Antrim and Newtownabbey council devised a fresh funding programme for 2016 amid the controversy.
However, Ballycraigy and several other bonfire groups have not signed up to the new scheme, which has tighter controls on spending.
It offers funding of up to £2,700 for related family events in exchange for not using tyres and other environmentally harmful materials.
The notorious Ballycraigy bonfire has made global headlines in the past for its sectarian displays including an effigy of a hanged Gerry Adams.
It was also the subject of a landmark prosecution earlier this year when a 19-year-old man was convicted over a racist display.
Last year The Irish News revealed that police encouraged Antrim council to fund the Ballycraigy group despite a PSNI investigation into the bonfire's racist and sectarian displays.
According to council minutes, funding for 2014 was approved after police were "urging council support" for payments to the group.
On BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme on Tuesday, Mr Cochrane-Watson praised the work of the old Antrim council on bonfires.
The former councillor said its initiative, which he was involved in, managed to reduce the number of bonfires in Antrim and "was a very positive experience".
However, he was challenged on the airwaves by nationalist commentator Chris Donnelly who said the Antrim scheme was "precisely what should not be happening".
He highlighted how the council initiative continues to provide funding when loyalist bonfires use racist or sectarian displays.
Mr Cochrane-Watson responded: "Let's look at the difference, two years ago at Ballycraigy we had no tyres, we had the PSNI involved in a children's fun day, we had the PSNI championing what was happening.
"But I'm sorry to tell you go to Ballycraigy today, where the bonfire committee and the good work of Antrim Borough Council has all been basically threw up in the air thanks to people like The Irish News – and look at the 5,000 to 6,000, maybe 10,000 tyres."
Last night Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney hit out at unregulated "rogue bonfires" in the Antrim area including Ballycraigy.
The South Antrim MLA said he would contact police and ask them to ensure that no hate crimes take place at the bonfires, and to bring forward prosecutions if necessary.