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Audit Office asked to investigate Belfast City Council's decision to award £400k for 'bonfire diversion'

By Andrew Madden, local democracy reporter

The Northern Ireland Audit Office has been asked to investigate a controversial Belfast City Council decision to award £400k of ratepayer’s money to community groups for “bonfire diversion”.

Sinn Fein and the DUP, who backed the decision made at the council last week, faced allegations of a “political carve up” when the details of the restricted meeting leaked to the media.

Now it has emerged that Alliance and SDLP councillors have requested to meet with the Northern Ireland Audit Office “as a matter of urgency” over how the decision to award the public money was made.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party said the party’s Belfast councillors would be meeting at the beginning of next week to discuss their “next course of action” over the issue, including the possibility of joining the other in any NIAO meeting.

The decision to give various groups cash for “Area-based festivals”, which involve “educational and diversionary activities associated with July and August bonfires”, came following a slow uptake in the council's own bonfire grants programme.

DUP council group leader Lee Reynolds said the festivals funding was “positive and worthwhile”.

Both Alliance and SDLP representatives referred to a “string of controversial decisions” pushed through the council by Sinn Fein and the DUP in recent months, including February’s reallocation of £4m of council funds for “Community Tourism”.

The controversial plan saw cash from the council's City Centre Social Outcomes Fund redistributed to nine community projects in east and west Belfast.

Like the Area-based Festivals Fund decision, the £4m “Community Tourism” reallocation was agreed without a call-in mechanism in place, or a public bidding process.

The call-in procedure allows other representatives to request that a decision be re-examined by a council lawyer for possible reconsideration.

“We have asked the UUP and the SDLP to join us in registering concern over the abuse of ratepayer’s money regarding this latest carve up by Sinn Fein and the DUP,” Alliance councillor Emmet McDonagh Brown said.

“This behind closed doors dealing, removing the call-in mechanism so others can’t question these decisions, it’s ridiculous.

“If this kind of thing happened in the Civil Service, the allocation of this kind of money would be measured, assessed and interrogated within an inch of its life. Yet, here we are at City Hall where Sinn Fein and the DUP can simply scratch each other’s backs and no one bats an eyelid.

“It is an issue we think the Audit Office, whom I have been in contact with over this political carve-up, needs to look at as a matter of urgency to ensure a fair and proper service for all.”

SDLP council group leader Tim Attwood said the council scrutinises some decisions closely, such as the funding for St Patrick’s Day festivities and community grants, but neglects to examine others.

“There has been a number of decisions, such as the Community Tourism fund a number of months ago and now this Festivals Fund, that have been pushed through by Sinn Fein and the DUP with little-to-no transparency or fairness at all,” he added.

“We want to raise our concerns with the Audit Office to ensure ratepayers money is handled in a fair and equitable way.”

Councillor Attwood said one of the “strongest aspects” of Stormont’s 2016 Draft Programme for Government, which Arlene Foster and the late Martin McGuiness signed off on, was the introduction of “outcome-based decision making”.

“This would ensure public money would go where it needs to, to where it can do the most good. The problem here is, we don’t know the worthwhile groups from the others, or any details of the funding," the SDLP councillor said.

“If outcome-based decision making is good enough for Sinn Fein and the DUP in the Executive, why not in City Hall?”

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