Bonfire scheme deserves scrutiny

COUNCILLORS in Belfast have taken the unusual step of deciding to embark on a public consultation exercise.

It is, however, highly questionable - especially in light of other business considered by councillors in the city this week - if they have even chosen the correct issue on which to canvass the opinions of ratepayers.

The city-wide consultation, which results from a Sinn Féin motion passed by the People and Communities committee and is expected to be ratified by the full council, relates to whether a new leisure centre being built on the site of the former Robinson Centre in east Belfast should be renamed.

The municipal facility was named after former DUP leader Peter Robinson in the 1980s when it fell under the ambit of the now-defunct Castlereagh Borough Council.

At the time Mr Robinson was MP for East Belfast and a member of Castlereagh council, where he was a singularly influential figure.

In addition to naming a flagship swimming pool after him, Castlereagh council further celebrated Mr Robinson's unique contributions by awarding him the freedom of the borough, hosting a lavish celebratory dinner and - in a move unusual even by the idiosyncratic standards of Northern Ireland politics - commissioned a £4,000 bronze bust to immortalise the DUP figure.

Following a reorganisation of district councils, the Robinson Centre fell within the boundaries of Belfast City Council.

Its multi-million pound redevelopment of the ageing building has prompted debate about whether it should continue to carry a name inextricably linked to unionism.

Sinn Féin tabled a motion at Monday's full council meeting calling for a name change, saying council property should be inclusive and welcoming to all.

This motion was in turn referred to the People and Communities Committee, which decided to initiate the public consultation.

There are clearly legitimate concerns around how council property is named in Belfast and elsewhere, as shown by the controversy over the naming of a Newry play park after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.

However, ratepayers are also fully entitled to be concerned about decisions taken by councillors which materially affect the size of their rates bills.

Belfast councillors effectively increased rates in the city when, also on Monday, they voted to allocate £500,000 to a highly controversial 'bonfire diversion scheme'.

The council devoted £400,000 to the scheme last year, with the Northern Ireland Audit Office critical of how the money was spent and the beneficiaries chosen.

Sinn Féin and the DUP, who dominate the council, have defended the scheme, which Alliance has branded as a "carve-up" intended to favour "certain groups".

Ratepayers may well ask why councillors have this week chosen to consult on the naming of a leisure centre - and not on increasing expenditure of public money on a contentious bonfire scheme.