Northern Ireland news

Belfast City Council gives another £500,000 to contentious bonfire scheme

Contractors removing a loyalist bonfire at Cluan Place in east Belfast last year. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

BELFAST City Council has agreed to set aside half a million pounds for a controversial bonfire scheme which has been branded a political "carve-up".

The programme, which first 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 the funding has been used – and whether it undermines the council's main programme on tackling problems with bonfires.

The Irish News yesterday revealed that the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) examined how money was allocated in last year's scheme, which received £400,000 of ratepayers' cash.

Among a series of recommendations, it warned that groups seeking funding should be directed towards established programmes and "reliance on discretionary funding should be strongly discouraged", and that groups' other funding sources "should be known to ensure there is no perception of favouritism".

It also issued guidance following concerns over how the 'call-in' process, which allows decisions to be reviewed, was suspended when councillors decided upon last year's scheme.

A bonfire at Bloomfield Walkway in east Belfast last year. Picture by Mal McCann

NIAO had agreed to examine the scheme following concerns raised by the Alliance Party.

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.

The plan was agreed at last night's full council meeting at Belfast City Hall.

Alliance councillor Michael Long, who opposed 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 lesser proposed uplift of 1.67 per cent.

Alliance councillor Michael Long voiced concerns about the scheme

Mr Long 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.

However, both main parties have strongly defended the scheme.

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Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie 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".

He 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".

DUP councillor 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 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".

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