Northern Ireland

IFI funds projects, not individuals, organisation insists after link emerges between leading loyalist on charges and group that received close to £900,000

Building Cultural Networks, linked to Winston Irvine, received the money after the loyalist was charged with gun and ammunition offences

Village Bonfire
Pallets gathered at the Village Bonfire site near the Holiday Inn of Sandy Row

Projects, not individuals, receive funding from the International Fund for Ireland, the major backer of peacebuilding initiatives said on Wednesday.

The organisation, set up by the the Irish and UK governments, was responding to the involvement of a leading loyalist in a group that received close to £900,000 in IFI money.

More than 250 people attended a major conference on protestant, unionist and loyalist cultural expression organised by the prominent loyalist Winston Irvine.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly had been listed as special guest for the conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in south Belfast, organised by Building Cultural Networks, an arm of the ACT Initiative, a group set up help with the “civilianisation” of former UVF members.

Emma Little Pengelly and Winston Irvine
Emma Little Pengelly and Winston Irvine

But late on Tuesday, a spokesperson for The Executive Office (TEO) said: “No minister from the Executive Office are attending this event.”

“The IFI funds projects, not individuals, and has robust systems in place to ensure that projects deliver specific outputs that support and encourage peacebuilding activity,” an IFI spokesperson said.

“The acceptance of any IFI funding is through a letter of offer, which constitutes a legally binding agreement. The IFI is committed to delivering a lasting peace offering hope and opportunity for communities.

“This individual is not and never has been an employee of the IFI. We are aware that he has been involved with projects and groups that have been involved with our Peace Impact Programme.”

Among the speakers at the conference were the leaders of both the Apprentice Boys and the Orange Order along with champion boxer Carl Frampton and Queen’s University’s Dominic Bryan, former head of a commission that investigated flags and emblems.

Mr Irvine is currently facing gun and ammunition charges following his arrest in June 2022 by police investigating a hoax bomb alert that led to then Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney abandoning a speaking engagement in the grounds of the Holy Cross Church in north Belfast.

Simon Coveney is informed of a security alert while speaking at a peace-building event at The Houben Centre in Belfast
Simon Coveney is informed of a security alert while speaking at a peace-building event at The Houben Centre in Belfast (Hume Foundation/PA)

Upper Bann DUP MP Carla Lockhart was listed as a panelist at the event but the party did not immediately respond when asked whether she attended. The Irish News was unable to attend as Mr Irvine said the publication did not register in time.

BCN was set up in early 2023 and the same year received funding of close to £900,000 from the International Fund for Ireland, an organisation set up by the British and Irish governments but which receives monies from various parts of the world, including the EU and the US.

A major focus of the new organisation is bonfires. Its strategic board includes the Reverend Harold Good and Jim Roddy, Derry’s City Centre manager.

In a recently published IFI annual report, William Mitchell, ACT’s project director, said “This project is quite unique. In my experience, never before has 16 designated communities over such a large remit come together to collaborate, not only with each other, but the designated landowners in those areas.

Jim Roddy. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin 

“The images people associate with bonfires – ‘This is a fire-fest because there is anti-social behaviour, there is discriminatory material on view, and sectarian language used’ – we are trying to dismantle that and in doing so, we believe that we now have a regulatory model that wider society can support.”

According to the organisers of the conference, BCN “has made a hugely significant and outsized contribution in helping to manage many of the highly contentious and dangerous challenges around bonfires and cultural celebrations.

Mr Roddy added of the network: “It’s about making people understand these are cultural celebrations and they have the right to have them and, at the same time, make them understand they must fit in with a normal society,”