Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Why there is an irrefutable need for a full inquiry into how public cash is spent on Feile an Phobail

Belfast City Council's statement about which events it funds requires further explanation

The Wolfe Tones
The Wolfe Tones
Boyzone performing at this year’s Feile
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

Feile an Phobail is over for another year and, as usual, it ended with the controversial "rebel music" night from The Wolfe Tones in Falls Park. Now, Feile is part-funded by Tourism Northern Ireland and its chairman wrote that "events such as Feile are firmly established within our tourism fabric". That's why they part-fund it and promote it.

Indeed, they think so highly of Feile that it was "highly commended" at the Tourism NI annual awards, coming just behind the Balmoral Show in its section. So, what sort of experiences were on offer for tourists?

Well, if you were interested in Gaelic sports you could have attended a Siobhan O'Hanlon Blitz. Or, if you prefer the Gaelic version, Bleaist Siobhan O'Hanlon.

This was named in honour of Siobhan O'Hanlon, a co-founder of the festival, and the word "blitz" was very appropriate because IRA member Siobhan was convicted in 1983 of possessing explosives.

Or, perhaps you're the tourist who would enjoy the Annual Prisoners' Day at the Felons Club, with hours of talks about the "republicans who were incarcerated in Britain's prisons".

Maybe not? Then, take a look at the films on offer. Then, forget about film companies like Paramount and Universal and think of the Pat Finucane Centre film about a shooting in Londonderry. Or Fra Hughes' personal video blog of a visit to Palestine.

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You may prefer the written word, so what about a book launch? Well, there was the launch of State Murders In The Glens, with proceeds from the book going to the National Graves Association (it is the organisation that looks after IRA graves and organises IRA commemorations).

Perhaps you're the tourist who likes something more active and artistic. Then, for you, there was a walking tour of the Falls Road murals - and all for a mere £10.

If it was raining, you could have popped into the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, named after the first OC of the women prisoners in Armagh.

Perhaps you're beginning to understand why Tourism NI commended them so highly.

But the climax of the festival was that final night with The Wolfe Tones in Falls Park. The festival programme even listed two supporting acts from Glasgow and said there were "more acts to follow".

That explains the appearance of the Eire Nua Flute Band, which included one of the people on the platform leading the 10,000-strong crowd in chants of: "The I, the I, the IRA."

Until recently the "rebel night" was held in a large tent, but the move to an open-air event has meant larger crowds and more commercial revenue for the Feile.

Of course, that has only been possible because Belfast City Council spent £300,000 on a new open-air "event space" in Falls Park.

Along with Tourism NI, the other big funders include Belfast City Council. "Feile presents an eclectic range of over 300 inclusive arts and cultural activities over a 10-day period," said a council spokesman.

"While council supports the festival on this basis, funding provided is not to be used for commercial activity, of which The Wolfe Tones event is one. As part of the terms of our funding, the grant must comply with statutory equality provisions."

I'm sorry, Belfast City Council, but that is simply not good enough. This artificial isolation of "commercial events" to justify funding Feile is just that: artificial and arbitrary. Moreover, it doesn't explain how the council views the other "non-commercial" events listed above.

Some unionist councillors have already expressed their determination to pursue this matter and that is good, but it will require a broader approach that draws in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Tourism NI.

Indeed, one complainant has already contacted the Charity Commission (Feile an Phobail registered as a charity in 2016 and records an income of £1.2m).

There is an irrefutable need for a comprehensive and forensic scrutiny of the funding of Feile.

It is the sort of thing that really needs to be put under the spotlight. That will require time and resources.

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