Projects linked to UDA boss Birch in line for £500k from Belfast council
Two projects linked to UDA boss Jimmy Birch could be in line for more than half a million pounds of ratepayers' money if Belfast City Council approves their applications for funding.
Charter NI, of which Birch is a director, has already been given £1.7m of public money, but now two other groups with which he is connected are seeking huge hand-outs from City Hall.
The Hanwood Trust, of which the UDA brigadier and his wife Caroline are directors, and the boxing club of the Tullycarnet Action Group Initiative Trust (TAGIT) - of which they are trustees - have applied for money from the Belfast Investment Fund (BIF).
If funding is approved by councillors, the projects will received a combined total of at least £500,000 funding and, sources told the Belfast Telegraph, that the amount could end up as high as £1m.
Alliance council group leader Michael Long last night raised serious questions about the processes surrounding BIF funding, which he claimed "lack openness and transparency".
He said: "BIF funding isn't advertised publicly in any meaningful way which denies many community groups the opportunity to take part.
"Some aren't even aware it exists. In contrast, those groups in the know are in prime position to apply, and secure huge sums of money.
"I am not faulting successful projects - they do what they are asked to do by the council. It is the funding process which is seriously inadequate."
Charter NI, of which the East Belfast UDA boss is a director, has been allocated £1.7m from the Social Investment Fund by the Stormont Executive.
Amidst calls for that funding to be suspended, Birch has stood by the group's chief executive, UDA commander Dee Stitt, whose North Down gang has been linked to drug-dealing, racketeering and intimidation.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that both the Hanwood Trust, of which Birch has been a director for over three years according to Companies House, and a boxing club run by TAGIT, of which he is registered as a trustee with the Charity Commission, have applied to City Hall for BIF money.
Amounts of more than £250,000 are allocated from the fund to community projects across the city.
It must be stressed that other directors, trustees, and staff of Hanwood and TAGIT have no paramilitary connections.
The two projects are aiming for a share of the £2m BIF is distributing to the parts of Castlereagh which have brought into the Belfast city council area.
Mr Long is demanding that the availability of BIF funding be publicly advertised, with a closing date for applications, and "clear, detailed and adequate scoring" to determine that the best projects are funded.
"At the moment there isn't a level playing field," he said.
"It is bizarre that the council is distributing millions of pounds of community funding like this. If it was filling jobs in the same manner, there would be uproar."
The Alliance group leader said that earlier this month he had called for the availability of the £2m BIF funding to be publicly advertised with a closing date for applications of the end of 2016, but that DUP, Ulster Unionist and Sinn Fein councillors on the East Belfast Area Working Group had voted down his proposal.
"To date, there have only been three applications for the money - from Hanwood Trust, TAGIT boxing, and Braniel Church. Even if all are successful, there will still be hundreds of thousands of pounds of BIF money left unspent," he said. "The fact that we can't even give the money away, as there so few applicants, suggests the current process is failing abysmally.
"The reality is that anyone who does find out about the money is almost assured of getting it.
"Given that there are many community organisations crying out for funding, we should be trying to reach as many people as possible."
BIF is worth £27m and its sister fund, the Local Investment Fund (LIF), £4m.
Belfast City Council has previously insisted that it is committed to openness and transparency. A spokeswoman said that all projects in relation to BIF and LIF were "subject to scrutiny through the Area Working Groups, Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, and are ultimately ratified at the full monthly meeting of the council".
She added that all projects considered for funding were "highlighted openly in our committee meeting minutes, which are available online at www.belfastcity.gov.uk" and that expenditure relating to BIF was "audited by both our own internal audit service and the Northern Ireland Audit Office".