Northern Ireland

Féile an Phobail: Concerns over £550,000 public funding given to festival

Féile an Phobail offices in west Belfast
Image caption Féile an Phobail, based in west Belfast, is the biggest festival in Northern Ireland

More than £500,000 has been given to a community arts festival in the last two years through a funding programme where it was the only group to get a grant.

The Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) awarded Féile an Phobail a total of £550,000, through a 'cultural programme' fund.

Some of that cash was then distributed by the festival to other arts groups.

Some MLAs and arts workers have raised concerns about what they have said is a lack of transparency in the process.

But the Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín said all of the money had been subject to extensive "due diligence."

Féile an Phobail, also known as the West Belfast Festival, is the biggest festival in Northern Ireland.

Image caption Féile an Phobail has been given £550,000 by DCAL through a 'cultural programme' in the last two years

The 'cultural programme' fund was set up in 2013 by DCAL to provide money for organisations to run events alongside the World Police and Fire Games that took place in Belfast.

Split

Féile an Phobail was given £254,000, while two other organisations also got money.

In 2014, DCAL ran another 'cultural programme', giving £350,000 directly to Féile an Phobail, with £200,000 of that for the festival.

The remainder was distributed by Féile an Phobail to five other organisations.

This year, the festival received another £200,000 from DCAL's latest cultural programme.

That was split, with £90,000 for the festival to use and £110,000 distributed to seven other organisations.

Image caption The funding given to Féile an Phobail was split between the festival itself and seven other arts groups

DCAL would not comment when asked if the application process for the funding given to Féile an Phobail had been openly advertised and whether any organisation could apply for it.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Féile an Phobail.

Agenda

In a statement, it said it had been given the money to provide "access to the arts in some of the most 'at need' [and] disadvantaged communities in Belfast."

It said it was then "tasked with further expanding the project with an assembled team of cultural partners", enabling them to deliver the arts to "the heart of a diverse range of communities".

Adam Turkington, who runs a number of arts organisations in Belfast, said "nobody knows what the process is" for obtaining the money given to Féile an Phobail.

He added that he felt Ms Ní Chuilín had a "personal agenda" over how some arts groups were funded.

Image caption Glenn Patterson said the way the money was distributed would "take a lot of people by surprise"

Belfast writer Glenn Patterson said there would be a "great deal of justifiable anger" over the circumstances of the funding at a time of cuts to other arts organisations.

Earlier this month, 32 of Northern Ireland's biggest arts groups were told their public funding would be cut by 7%.

"There are people who are losing their jobs, there are organisations that are going to the wall," Mr Patterson said.

Handled

He added that allocation of the money to Féile an Phobail to then allocate to other groups "it seems at the minister's behest" would "take a lot of people by surprise".

Democratic Unionist Party MLA Nelson McCausland, the chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly's culture committee, said the money should not have been handed out to one organisation "in this secret manner".

Image caption Nelson McCausland said the funding should have been allocated to groups through an application process

"If you had money to spend within the department you could potentially hand it out through the Arts Council," he said.

"Alternatively, if it's to be handled by the department, they should have created a specific programme with application forms, criteria, advertisements, accessibility.

"Most people I've spoken to right across the arts world in Northern Ireland have said: 'We knew nothing about this.'"

Ms Ní Chuilín said Mr McCausland's comments were "quite disgraceful".

She said Féile an Phobail had provided a "business case, they've done evaluation, they've been through more due diligence and scrutiny than any other funded body".

"We need to create a fund where people see festivals as a way of generating the economy," she added.

More on this story