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Investigation launched into management of bonfire scheme

AN investigation has been launched into how a £200,000-a-year scheme aimed at reducing tensions at mainly loyalist bonfire sites was being managed. one member of staff at Belfast City Council has been suspended pending the out-come of the probe into how guidelines for the distribution of the money have been implemented. the council's bonfire management scheme awards grants to communities who engage with an educational programme to reduce the burning of tyres and offensive symbols on annual July 11 bonfires. in 2013, 45 groups in loyalist areas and 12 groups in republican areas received grants of up to £1,500. the scheme is funded by the special eUProgrammes Body and facilitated by ground-work ni, who deal with the 'bonfire committees' set up by communities in mainly loyalist areas.

While highly controversial when it first started in 2005, the management scheme has claimed several successes in convincing a number of hard-line communities to move the fires away from interfaces.

However, almost half the sites signing up to the scheme still burnt tricolours or other nationalist emblems last year and attendance at training courses was at an all time low. at 13 workshops organised in 2013, five had no local participation. among the more outrageous items placed on bonfires in recent years were a statue of our Lady, an effigy of a Catholic priest who had died by suicide and a reference to a Catholic teenager killed in a sectarian attack. in July last year, a statue of our Lady was placed on a loyalist bonfire at Lanark Way in west Belfast. it was removed before the eleventh night and given to a priest who organised for the statue to be repaired.

Also last year, angry parishioners, some in tears, called The Irish News to denounce those who placed a figure believed to depict Fr Matt Wallace in a grotesque pose on an eleventh night bonfire in the loyalist Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim. In 2006, an irish tricolour with a disparaging remark written on it about Michael Mcilveen was placed on the top of a bonfire in Co Antrim. the 15-year-old had been beaten to death in a sectarian attack earlier in the year.

Loyalist bonfires cost tens of thousands in clean up, policing and emergency services costs each year.

While the council say they hope to continue with the scheme and are seeking other forms of funding, sources say it is unlikely that the investigation will be concluded in time for this summer. a Belfast City Council spokeswoman said they were; "working with seUPB to investigate a potential breach of eU procurement guidelines by a contractor in relation to the bonfire programme". the contractor in this case is groundwork who facilitate the scheme.

"The council does not comment on individual members of staff but emphasises that no council staff are suspected of acting fraudulently," the spokeswoman added. a spokesman for the contractor said: "Recently, groundwork northern ireland was made aware of issues regarding the Promoting Positive expressions of Cultural Heritage Programme.

"A member of our senior management team unconnected to this programme has been instructed to conduct an investigation, liaise with partners and report findings to our Board.

"While this investigation is proceeding, we will be unable to provide any further comment."

* OFFENSIVE: Despite a Belfast City Council scheme to reduce the burning of tyres and offensive symbols on bonfires, a statue of Our Lady, above, and a reference to the death of Catholic teenager Michael McIlveen, below right, are among a number of items which have appeared on bonfires in recent years

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