Belfast councillors to vote on giving £500,000 to controversial bonfire scheme
COUNCILLORS in Belfast are set to vote tonight on setting aside a further £500,000 for a controversial bonfire scheme.
It comes as a public spending watchdog warned that groups seeking funding should be directed towards established programmes and "reliance on discretionary funding should be strongly discouraged".
The Belfast City Council (BCC) programme, which surfaced last year, gives money to groups for "area-based festivals" as a means of "bonfire diversion".
But concerns were raised over secrecy surrounding how groups were chosen, how last year's £400,000 fund has been used – and whether it undermines the council's main programme on tackling problems with bonfires.
Critics branded the scheme a political "carve-up" between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but both parties strongly defended the discretionary funding.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) agreed to examine it following Alliance Party concerns.
In a letter to Alliance councillor Michael Long, local government auditor Pamela McCreedy outlined a series of recommendations NIAO has made.
It said groups seeking funding should be directed towards established programmes, and "reliance on discretionary funding should be strongly discouraged".
Criteria for such funding should be "clear from the outset" and "widely advertised", while proposed groups' other funding sources "should be known to ensure there is no perception of favouritism".
And funding outcomes should be "carefully considered so the success/benefit for the funding provided can be thoroughly assessed".
NIAO also issued guidance following concerns over how the 'call-in' process, which allows council decisions to be reviewed, was suspended when councillors decided upon last year's scheme.
It said suspending the call-in should be "exceptional" and "clearly stated in the published minutes".
Stormont's Department for Communities (DfC), which has responsibility for local government matters, has also written to BCC about the call-in suspension.
Mr Long, Alliance's council group leader, said the NIAO recommendations have vindicated its concerns.
He claimed the "half-baked" programme had "very little to do with reducing tensions around bonfires" as some of the initiatives funded last year have yet to be completed.
"In our view this was quite clearly a carve-up by Sinn Féin and DUP of funding for certain groups whilst others clearly had little or no chance of securing any money," he said.
Last year when a BCC committee considered the 'area-based festivals fund', the press were told to leave the room. Details only emerged after being leaked to the media.
One group allocated more than £26,000 was the Sandy Row-based Belfast South Community Resources (BSCR), which in the past has been linked to the UDA.
At the time BSCR's Trevor Greer told The Irish News the funding was "not diverting anyone away from bonfires".
The group has been involved in liaising between statutory agencies and those involved with a bonfire at Hope Street, which in 2017 damaged windows at the nearby Victoria Place flats.
Others awarded funding included Féile (£100,000); Markets area (£10,000); and Ulster Scots Agency (£80,000).
In December at a council committee, the DUP, Sinn Féin and PUP voted to allocate £500,000 towards the 'area-based festivals fund' for 2019.
It will be considered at tonight's full council meeting.
Mr Long, who voted against the proposal, said it was a "disgrace" that the parties "want to increase the money spent by £100,000 and include it in the rates".
He said it would contribute to a rates increase of 1.98 per cent, compared to a lower proposed uplift of 1.67 per cent.
However, Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie insisted last year's scheme was a success.
He said it led to a "huge reduction in anti-social behaviour in the Shankill area", and meant "destructive and illegal bonfires did not take place in nationalist areas".
Mr Beattie said the funding for 2019 is "totally transparent and is open to all groups who can make a difference to defuse tension in the July and August period".
The DUP did not respond to requests for a comment.
However, the party's council group leader Lee Reynolds last year said the funding was to "deliver a positive summer for our city and improve the lives of young people".
Responding to the NIAO, the council said if proposals for an area-based festival funding scheme "are agreed by members as part of the rate-setting process then the scheme will be widely advertised".
The council added that while it "will consider reporting other funding already agreed for an event from other council funding streams... this may not be a legitimate reason for refusing further funding".
NIAO also noted that a revised discretionary funding policy was agreed in August, which will restrict the amount of funds available in this way in future.
"Council also advised us that they intend to carry out a robust post-event evaluation process of the events/activities funded in this way," it said.