Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Council storm as DUP and SF vote through £500k 'bonfire diversion' fund

Bonfire building at Sandy Row, Belfast
Bonfire building at Sandy Row, Belfast
Michael Long
The west Belfast Festival
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

A row over a controversial "bonfire diversion" scheme flared up again in Belfast City Council last night after the DUP and Sinn Fein teamed up to vote through a six-figure funding boost.

There were heated exchanges in the chamber over plans to spend £500,000 on the scheme for "diversionary activities" that aims to defuse tensions during the annual bonfire season.

A motion from the Alliance Party opposing the move was defeated by 36 votes to 13, with five abstaining. The motion had also proposed a rates hike of 1.67%, compared to the DUP and Sinn Fein's preferred rise of 1.98%.

Alliance councillor Michael Long called the spend "unacceptable," while the SDLP's Tim Atwood said spending the money on bonfires was "beyond comprehension".

Last year, £400,000 was approved for the scheme but was criticised as a "carve-up" between the DUP and Sinn Fein, something both parties denied.

The SDLP and Alliance later raised concerns over the discretionary manner in which the money was handed out and apparent secrecy over how community groups were chosen. A no "call-in" mechanism was also used in the decision-making process, meaning those who disagreed could not get it reviewed.

The latest decision follows a warning by a public spending watchdog that awarding the money on a "discretionary" basis should be strongly discouraged.

In 2018, Feile an Phobail (the West Belfast festival) received £100,000, with £50,000 awarded to the Northern Ireland Alternatives community festivals in east Belfast. The Ulster Scots Agency received £80,000 while the Markets area was awarded £10,000.

A sum of £26,000 was also allocated to the Sandy Row-based Belfast South Community Resources (BSCR), which has been linked in the past to the UDA.

Speaking before the vote, Mr Long said last year's scheme had not been value for money.

"We believe it's absolutely ridiculous that an extra £500,000 is to be added to the rates. We've opted to prioritise this rather than providing other services for rate payers," he said.

Sinn Fein's Ciaran Beattie, however, accused Alliance of "moving the goalposts", by opposing the scheme at the last minute. He also accused Alliance of snobbery, saying it would not have opposed more "affluent" events.

The SDLP's Tim Attwood said it was "absolutely appalling" that the DUP, Sinn Fein and the PUP voted to keep the £500,000 for a "two-day festival".

The DUP's Lee Reynolds defended the decision, saying the council was about to deliver a real term cut in Belfast rates for the second term in a row.

He added that removing material from two contested bonfires in east Belfast last summer had cost much more than £500,000.

Mr Reynolds said concerns raised in the Northern Ireland Audit Office report had been addressed in the past six months, and said Alliance should have made its objections earlier "rather than trying to lead other parties in this chamber along a merry dance".

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