Funding bonfires – burning public money or a necessary investment in good relations?

Good Morning Ulster picked up on the minutes of a report from Belfast City Council’s Good Relations Partnership to the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee on Friday 17 October.

Pitt Park 11 July 2014 Terminator 3 bonfireBelfast – in common with many councils – provides grants to bonfire organisers to fund community programmes (often street entertainment, bouncy councils, fairground rides) organised on the side of loyalist and republican bonfires. However strings are attached: the bonfires mustn’t be built with hazardous material and flags and emblems mustn’t be burnt etc.

Many groups wholeheartedly adopt the guidelines and make good use of the funding. Some sites have even moved away from stacks of wooden pallets (and sofas and tyres …) to use beacons or 5m tall reusable pyramids filled with sustainable willow (and placed on a heat shield bed of sand).

Not everyone prevails of the grants on offer. And not everyone who does meets the conditions.

This year’s report explains that “this is a complicated project which is often difficult to monitor due to the number of variables that can have an impact on whether or not groups are in breach of terms and conditions”.

A total of 9 out of the 46 bonfires that received funding were noted to have breached their conditions. (Down from 17 breaches in 2013.)

I’m aware that at least one bonfire waited until the council inspector had called with them mid-afternoon before adorning their bonfire with flags. So while many bonfires in the scheme may have remained clear, I fear that more than 9 will have actually breached the rules.

While the groups receiving funding are meant to have influence over bonfire builders, not all of them have the necessary authority.

… groups which are responsible for funding allocated through the Bonfire Management Programme sometimes have limited control over “last minute” breaches to the terms and conditions and ultimately are unable to prevent tyres, flags and emblems being put on bonfires.

Yet when the breaches were brought to the attention of organisers, the majority are noted in the report claiming that they “were unable to stop this breach due to concerns for personal safety”. Perhaps the council needs to put more emphasis on the strength of linkage between funding applicants and bonfire builders. [Ed – what happens – hypothetically – if the UDA or UVF builds the bonfire and organise the entertainment? Does the council fund them directly?]

However, the funding comes with the condition:

Failure to adhere to the guidelines and terms and conditions may result in payments being withheld and clawed back and could exclude your organisation from access to future Belfast City Council grants and funding. Any decision in this regard will be the Council’s and will be final.

The Belfast Good Relations Partnership voted by majority to withhold the final 30% of the funding from 7 of the groups, and to pay up to 2 groups which had taken swift action on last minute breaches. (The two unionist councillors proposed that the Good Relations Partnership took no action and referred the decision to the Council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.)

Looking at one example of a breach, Pitt Park was one of the bonfire sites I visited around teatime on the Eleventh Night. I’m not picking on Pitt Park, but it’s a site I witnessed and have blogged about in previous years.

Belfast Good Relations Committee 2014 bonfire report Pitt Park snippet

The report prepared for the Good Relations Partnership noted:

Single Tricolour on top of the bonfire.

Council officers were advised that the local community group worked with local people to advise of the negative issues associated with burning flags and emblems but were to unable to stop this breach due to concerns for personal safety.

An impressive fun fair was in full swing, and the local community was enjoying eating and drinking outside. On the other side of the children’s play park, the bonfire sat with a tricolour on top along with a Sinn Féin election poster.

Pitt Park 11 July 2014 bonfireThe Good Relations Partnership report notes the flag but not the poster, and didn’t seem able to get photographic evidence!

When snapping the Terminator 3 amusement ride from quite a distance away, I was approached by organisers asking who I was taking photographs for and raising concerns that children would be in the shots.

But no one raised an eyelid about shooting the bonfire in the far corner.

The number of bonfires in Belfast participating in the council scheme has increased over the years [Ed – who’d turn down a £2,000 grant?] while the total number of bonfires across the city has slowly reducing.

The figures below are from a post in July 2013:

BCC beacons bonfires statsFunding bonfires – or funding community activities around the edge of bonfires – is a two edged sword. There’s little doubt that the injection of significant public funding – around £100k in 2014 in Belfast alone – has significantly cleaned up Eleventh Night bonfires, reduced Fire Service call outs.

However, the rules are easy to break and hard to enforce (both by the council and to some extent by the organisers).

The threat to that failure to meet the conditions of the grant could “exclude your organisation from access to future Belfast City Council grants and funding” is not in the council’s interest to enforce. Hard work with peer mentoring diversionary days and education about health concerns when dangerous materials are burnt could easily go up in smoke.

Yet the ability to – year after year – claim 70% of the funding isn’t much of a deterrent. Particularly if the shortfall is for part of the budget that isn’t core to the costs on the day.

Surely those sites which breach the conditions should only be offered a reduced grant if they apply the following year, restored to the full amount the year after if they successfully meet the full conditions.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.