Northern Ireland

NI Audit Office contacted over Belfast City Council's bonfire diversionary fund allocation

Belfast City Council's bonfire diversionary fund is aimed at promoting alternative events to bonfires in July and August.
Belfast City Council's bonfire diversionary fund is aimed at promoting alternative events to bonfires in July and August.

ALLIANCE councillors have contacted the Northern Ireland Audit Office over concerns relating to Belfast City Council's bonfire diversionary funding scheme.

The party has claimed a community group is set to receive funding allocated for the Summer Community Diversionary Festival scheme that not initially met the criteria threshold.

Under the £500,000 scheme, community groups are offered grants to promote "positive cultural expression" at festivals in order to reduce tensions related to bonfires.

Read More: What are eleventh night bonfires?

It emerged this week that £202,255 of the allocated £250,000 for July under the scheme has been spent, with five groups in the city being unsuccessful in their application for funds.

The council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, which oversees the fund, discussed how to use the £47,745 underspend, with an option being to split it between the five unsuccessful groups or offer it to one of the groups that had passed one stage of the assessment process.

However, an Alliance proposal to use the leftover funding instead on a "capacity building programme" to help groups applying next summer was passed.

Read more: Councillors clash over spending on bonfire diversionary fund

Alliance councillor Sam Nelson said on Wednesday that this proposal was overturned after a "U-turn" by Sinn Féin councillors following a Strategic Policy and Resources Committee meeting.

He said the leftover funding would now instead go to one of the unsuccessful groups.

It was reported this week that the council was to hold an emergency meeting to discuss concerns over anti-social behaviour in south Belfast, where no groups had been successful in the initial diversionary funding application. 

The council's full monthly meeting heard a claim on Monday by UUP councillor Jim Rodgers that the PSNI had concerns over potential anti-social behaviour in the area.

Mr Nelson said the funding move was "disappointing" and went against the council's need for "openness and transparency with ratepayers’ money".

"Alliance’s initial proposal would have not only helped tackle the issue around bonfires but helped organisations who apply for funding to do that on a long-term basis instead of the annual sticking plaster approach currently employed," he said.

"Councillors were informed by the PSNI there could be a risk of violence if the funding was not awarded in this way but as political leaders, we can never allow the threat of violence to make decisions for us."

He added: “Alliance has contacted the Audit Office to seek a meeting on this matter. It is unacceptable Belfast ratepayers have to continue funding the council’s diversionary scheme in its current form, which avoids dealing with the problem and results in a party carve-up each year, instead of a previously agreed proposal which is for the good of everyone applying.”

However, Sinn Féin councillor Ronan McLaughlin said his party has been "crystal clear throughout this process that no group will receive funding from this scheme unless the funding thresholds have been met".

"That remains our position," he said.

"The summer bonfire diversionary scheme is one of Belfast City Council’s most effective schemes. Last year as a result of this programme there were no bonfires reported in nationalist areas in August for the first time in many years.

"This is a time for all parties to work together to reduce tensions rather than engaging in stunts and meaningless soundbites."