Northern Ireland news

Belfast's £400,000 'bonfire diversion' scheme funded projects in December

Bloomfield Walkway bonfire last year in east Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

A COUNCIL'S £400,000 scheme aimed at reducing tensions around summer bonfires held some funded projects the following December – and some were not delivered at all.

Details of how Belfast City Council's divisive 'bonfire diversion' scheme was spent have been disclosed almost a year after funding was approved.

One community festival spent more than £64,000 on its performer line-up which included former M People singer Heather Small and Swedish DJ Basshunter.

Some events funded under the scheme, which was supposed to reduce tensions over July and August bonfires, were only held in December.

One of the projects is "still being delivered", while another has had no funding issued.

It comes as five groups are set to share in £500,000 of ratepayers' cash set aside for 2019 – the scheme's second year.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have backed the initiative, but political opponents branded it a "carve-up" between the two parties.

Projects due to share the £500,000 look set to be formally approved during tonight's monthly council meeting.

SDLP councillor Dónal Lyons said last year's programme was a "huge amount of public money spent with little explanation" and it "ran a horse and cart through the council's existing bonfire management scheme".

He urged a "robust" evaluation of the programme, which the council pledged after an Audit Office review made a series of recommendations.

"Many people will be rightly asking why £400,000 worth of public money, which is supposedly connected to problem bonfires during July and August, was spent throughout the year and as late as December," he said.

"It's certainly not the first time that concerns have been raised over how groups were chosen to receive this money, what they're using it for and who exactly benefits from it."

When the scheme was discussed last May at a council committee, the press were told to leave the room. Details only emerged after being leaked to the media.

A more detailed spending breakdown has since been disclosed to The Irish News through a Freedom of Information request.

The Twaddell and Woodvale Residents Association received £100,000 for the Woodvale Festival from July 8-11. Its costs included £64,750 on a performer line-up which included Heather Small and Basshunter.

Féile an Phobail (West Belfast Festival) received £100,000 for a free dance night on August 8, comprising of artist costs (£96,000) and event production (£4,000).

The Market Development Association's spending included "diversionary activities" (£6,985), with events taking place in July, August, October, November and December.

New Lodge Arts received £40,000 for events in July and August, which included event production (£13,050), "diversionary activities" (£6,400) and "wellbeing services" (£2,900).

Belfast South Community Resources (BSCR), which in the past has been linked to the UDA, held events between July and September including fabrication workshops (£11,020), mindfulness sessions (£800) and a digital skills week (£3,905).

The Ulster-Scots Community Network was awarded £80,000, but the council said the project is "still being delivered".

Northern Ireland Alternatives was allocated £50,000 but the council said the project "did not proceed and no funding was awarded".

The council declined to release further information, saying it would "damage our relationships with local community organisations, the local community generally, and would inhibit our ability to effectively conduct public affairs".

The council was also asked for a copy of any evaluation reports, but it said it holds no such information.

Both Sinn Féin and the DUP have strongly defended the scheme.

Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie has previously insisted the 2018 scheme meant "destructive and illegal bonfires did not take place in nationalist areas", and the funding for 2019 was "totally transparent".

The DUP's Lee Reynolds last year said the funding was to "deliver a positive summer for our city and improve the lives of young people".

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