Northern Ireland news

Belfast's £500,000 bonfire scheme 'is Féile funding', Sinn Fein councillor says

A bonfire last year at Cluan Place in east Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

A FUNDING scheme for 'bonfire diversion' worth £500,000 is facing further questions after Sinn Féin councillors declared who would receive money – before any application process has even been begun.

Belfast City Council (BCC) on Monday night agreed to set aside half-a-million pounds for the scheme, which gives money to groups for 'area-based festivals' as a means of 'bonfire diversion'.

When it first surfaced last year, concerns were raised about secrecy over how groups were chosen, how the funding has been used and whether it undermines the council's main programme on tackling bonfire issues.

Last year £400,000 of ratepayers' cash was given to groups, including £100,000 for the West Belfast Festival (Féile an Phobail) and £100,000 for Twaddell Woodvale Residents Association to run a concert on July 11.

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

Ian Knox cartoon 9/1/18: Belfast City Council has voted to approve £500,000 in funding for events to reduce tensions around bonfires. Tory MP Anna Soubry is jostled and called a Nazi by a vociferous group of Brexiteers during a television interview  

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 Monday night's full council meeting at Belfast City Hall.

The SDLP proposed using the money to establish an 'anti-poverty crisis fund', while Alliance wanted the scheme dropped and the saving passed on to ratepayers, but both proposals were defeated.

Sinn Féin councillor Ciaran Beattie has insisted the scheme is "totally transparent and is open to all groups who can make a difference to diffuse tension in the July and August period".

But as the council meeting continued, two Sinn Féin councillors posted identical messages on their Facebook pages in which they described it as "funding for the Féile West Belfast festival".

Daniel Baker and Charlene O'Hara claimed SDLP councillors "voted in Belfast City Council against funding for the Féile West Belfast festival".

Mr Baker's brother, Samuel Baker, is a director of Féile.

During the council debate, Mr Beattie also hit out at the SDLP councillors, saying "obviously you're going to vote against giving money to festivals including Féile".

Alliance councillor Michael Long challenged Mr Beattie's comments and said there "has been no agreement about money going to Féile".

In response, Mr Beattie clarified that he meant "potentially, because they will be eligible to apply for funding like every other group through an open and transparent process".

Yesterday Mr Long said: "To me it just shows this is nothing to do with reducing tensions around bonfires. This seems to be quite clearly from Sinn Féin's point of view – and their councillors are now admitting it – just a way to fund Féile.

SDLP councillor Tim Attwood said: "There is no doubt that Féile do a very good job – we have supported Féile for many years.

"But in terms of this funding process, if it's to be truly open and transparent there can be no predetermined outcomes."

Sinn Féin said Mr Baker had received legal advice that there was no conflict of interest.

A party spokeswoman added: "It is ludicrous to suggest that Councillor Danny Baker had any conflict of interest relating to the area-based festival programme.

"This scheme is used for diversionary activities across Belfast and not any one specific project."

"The process for council funding applications is open and transparent and the council will apply due diligence in all cases."

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