Council unable to say how much cash it gave West Belfast Festival

Belfast City Council has said it could take up to 20 working days to provide information about how much money it provided for this year’s West Belfast Festival.

The local authority was responding to questions about how much financial support it gives to Feile an Phobail (Festival of the People) after a unionist councillor called on it to rethink its support for the annual event.

A screen grab from the video showing IRA flags being displayed in the crowd at Falls Park on Sunday

A screen grab from the video showing IRA flags being displayed in the crowd at Falls Park on Sunday

Alderman Chris McGimpsey hit out at the organisers of the festival after they shared a video on social media showing people waving IRA flags during a concert in Falls Park on Sunday evening.

Other videos from the event, which weren’t posted by the organisers but were shared by others on social media, showed the crowd chanting “Oh ah up the ‘RA”.

The concert was headlined by controversial Irish rebel band the Wolfe Tones – a booking which has raised serious questions about the inclusivity of the festival and whether it should be supported with ratepayers’ money.

While other funders such as Tourism NI and the Arts Council were able to tell the News Letter how much they contributed to this year’s festival, Belfast City Council said it was unable to do so.

Alderman Chris McGimpsey said he has received messages of support from west Belfast

Alderman Chris McGimpsey said he has received messages of support from west Belfast

A spokesman said the matter would have to be dealt with as a Freedom of Information request, giving the local authority 20 working days to provide an answer.

Alderman McGimpsey said the amount of council funding for the festival “should be a matter of public record”, adding that it was “quite ridiculous” that the local authority couldn’t provide the information requested.

“We gave them (Feile), I think, £300,000 to meet a funding shortfall and they also asked for extra money this year for their 30th anniversary, which the Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein all supported and the unionists opposed.

“I wouldn’t want to put an exact figure on it, but it certainly runs to hundreds of thousands of pounds over the last number of years. It’s by far the biggest amount of money the council gives to any festival,” the UUP man said.

Feile an Phobail director Kevin Gamble

Feile an Phobail director Kevin Gamble

Tourism NI revealed that it contributed £65,000 towards this year’s Feile an Phobail “to assist in attracting international visitors to Northern Ireland”, but stressed that the funding does not cover large-scale commercial music events such as the one in Falls Park on Sunday night.

The Arts Council awarded Feile an Phobail a total of £116,599 this year – £79,822 Exchequer funding and £36,777 National Lottery funding – which will go towards the August Feile and the spring festival, Feile an Earraigh, in March 2019.

It too said it doesn’t fund large-scale commercial events such as the closing concert.

Meanwhile, Alderman McGimpsey says he has received messages of support from people in west Belfast since speaking out to condemn what happened at Sunday’s concert, which he says portrayed a “dreadful image” of the city.

“I got emails and a couple of telephone calls from people in nationalist west Belfast actually congratulating me. I’ve also got a fairly positive reaction on Facebook and also had emails from people in the Protestant community.

“It seems to have hit a raw nerve. There are a lot of people who are unhappy about what went on on Sunday night,” the veteran councillor added.

Feile an Phobail didn’t respond to the News Letter’s requests for comment about the controversy, but it did post a statement from its director Kevin Gamble on social media saying this year’s 30th anniversary festival was the “biggest ever held”, incorporating more than 350 events between August 2 and 12 that were attended by an estimated 100,000 people in total.

“This year, representatives from all communities were welcomed to Féile to have their voice heard. This covered a wide and diverse range of society,” Mr Gamble said.

“Many representatives from unionist and loyalist communities attended and took part in various panels, as did representatives from ethnic minority communities and international visitors,” he added.