Northern Ireland

Belfast City Council commits £500k to reduce bonfire tensions

Final preparation takes place for the bonfire on Sandy Row in Belfast in July 2017 Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Bonfires are part of the annual celebration to mark the Twelfth of July - the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne

Belfast City Council has voted to approve £500,000 in funding for events to reduce tensions around bonfires.

It is the second year in a row that money for the scheme has been agreed.

The decision has been criticised by Alliance, the UUP and the SDLP.

Last year DUP, Sinn Féin and PUP councillors on the strategic policy and resources committee first voted to fund the "summer diversionary events". At the time, they were accused of a political carve up.

However, the DUP and Sinn Féin defended the decision.

Speaking after Monday's vote Sinn Féin councillor Ciarán Beattie said: "Any scheme that reduces tension in this city and provides a safe city that everyone can celebrate their culture in, of course we will welcome that scheme."

The events that got money included £100,000 to Twaddell Woodvale Residents Association to run a concert on 11 July, while Féile an Phobail, also known as the West Belfast Festival, received £100,000.

Ulster-Scots

£80,000 also went to the Ulster-Scots Community Network to run a three-year planning process for a new festival.

The Belfast City Council programme, which surfaced last year, gives money to groups for "area -based festivals".

Some of the money came directly from funds raised for the council's failed European Capital of Culture bid.

On Monday night, the council rejected an amendment from Alliance councillor Michael Long to have the money taken out of the council's rates budget.

13 voted in favour, but 35 voted against and five councillors abstained.

Budget increase

The budget for 2019-20 has been increased by £100,000 from last year's budget.

In December at a council committee, the DUP, Sinn Féin and PUP voted to allocate £500,000 towards the fund for 2019.

Speaking after Monday night's vote, Mr Long told BBC News NI that the result was not surprising, but still disappointing.

He said it would contribute to a rates increase of 1.98 per cent, compared to a lower proposed uplift of 1.67 per cent.

Last year, concerns were raised over secrecy surrounding how groups were chosen to receive money, how the fund had been used and if it undermines the council's main programme on tackling problems with bonfires.

But the DUP and Sinn Féin have said the scheme had produced a lot of benefits in local communities, and that the criticism of funding was unfounded.

Image copyright Brendan Harkin
Image caption Bonfires are traditionally lit in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Audit Office also agreed to examine how money from the scheme had been allocated.

In a letter to Mr Long, seen by the BBC, local government auditor Pamela McCreedy said she had made a number of recommendations.

She said groups "seeking funding should be directed towards established funding programmes and reliance on discretionary funding should be strongly discouraged".

"Where discretionary funding is available the criteria should be clear from the outset and the availability of such funding should be widely advertised," she added.

The audit office also noted that a revised discretionary funding policy was agreed in August, which will restrict the amount of funds available in this way in future.

"Council also advised us that they intend to carry out a robust post-event evaluation process of the events/activities funded in this way," it said.

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