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A week on from a funding decision agreed by Newry, Mourne and Down Council regarding the size of an open call pot for community tourism events, councillors are still in disagreement over whether the decision made was the correct one or not.

It follows last Monday's monthly council meeting in Downpatrick where councillors voted on two options regarding how to decide the funding split between community tourism events and council run tourism events. The option agreed by the majority of councillors involved removing around 12% from the Council event budget to achieve an 85%/15% split between council run and community run events. The other option that failed to be recommended was to increase the community tourism events open call to £30K while making minimal adjustments to the council run events.

Wake the Giant, one of the annual council run festivals . Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ www.newry.ie
Wake the Giant, one of the annual council run festivals . Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ www.newry.ie

Purposely misleading

Councillor for The Mournes, Willie Clarke has expressed his disappointment at the decision. "Those who portray this decision as in effect ensuring the creation of a larger and more accessible funding stream which represents a fair and more practical approach to funding festivals in our district, are purposely misleading all involved with the promotion of Tourism & Community enhancing based events"

The Councillor explained "Sinn Féin supported the proposal where the major Council festivals would be protected and able to absorb the extra £30.000 which would be made available for Community / Voluntary tourism festivals, with a proven track record of delivering a high standard tourism festival experience.

"In recent Workshops to discuss a Tourism Funding strategy, I along with other colleagues lobbied for and ensured the maximum level of funding for festivals such as Fiddlers Green, Blues in the Bay and the Soma festival, would be raised from £10,000 to £15,000. This I argued would enable the organisers to continue to expand their festivals.

"The remaining £15,000 would be available to increase the funding for other tourism festivals or allow a number of new festivals to make a bid for funding from the tourism funding pot (£135,000)."

Cllr Clarke added that plans to extend The Festival of Flight to two days and expand the Wake the Giant Festival will now not happen.

A personal Attack on all Community Activists

Party colleague, Cllr Roisin Mulgrew also spoke of her regret. "The cutting of the tourism budget forced through council by SDLP, UUP and Independent councillors is reckless, shortsighted and flies in the face of our Councils plan to make Newry Mourne & Down area one of the key tourism regions of the island.

"Many including myself believe that Community Groups are being deliberately misled by some of those involved in voting against our proposals. The money removed from the council organised tourism events is to be made available to community led tourism events. However the vast majority of community events that receive council funding do so from the voluntary contribution funding stream as they are seen as community events and not economic drivers or likely to attract tourists.

"There within lies the problem and it is one that will cause major problems to most. The tourism budget comes from the enterprise regeneration and tourism directorate and the criteria for any groups applying for such funds are extremely rigorous, I have no doubt that many groups will find being eligible for such funding very challenging".

The south Armagh Councillor commenting on what she described as the savage cut in particular to the Footsteps in the Forest Festival stated,

"Myself and all of my fellow Sinn Fein councillors because of prejudices and spiteful opposition had to fight long and hard to ensure substantial funding and investment for south Armagh and in particular Slieve Gullion. The returns for the investment in terms of benifit to the economy and communities has been excellent.

Cllr Mulgrew concluded "Slieve Gullion is the most visited Forest Park amenity within the entire council area and is to date the only Park with Green Flag Accreditation .
Furthermore it receives more out of district visitors than any other facility.

"The decision to slice funding for the key Footsteps in the Forest Festival is a disgrace and should be deemed a very personal attack on all Community activists who for years have fought against the grain to get the Gullion Area respected and treated fairly."

No cut to the Tourism budget for 2018/19

Slieve Gullion Cllr Pete Byrne in reply to Cllr Clarke and Mulgrew's comments said, "Accusations from Sinn Fein that SDLP have forced through a reckless and short-sighted cut to the Tourism Budget are not only wholly inaccurate but are purposely misleading. Let me make it very clear that there has been no cut to the Tourism budget for 2018/19 following SDLP proposal on Monday night. The proposal accepted amounted to a redistribution of an already increased budget for the year ahead.

Iúr Cinn Fleadh, one of the community run events. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ www.newry.ie
Iúr Cinn Fleadh, one of the community run events. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ www.newry.ie

"The Tourism Events budget will rise from £1,016,000 in 2017/18 to £1,288,000 in 2018/19. That is an increase of £272,000 to enable us to build on the huge success of last year’s festivals and grow our tourism product accordingly. Last year’s investment saw a return of £11 Million into our economy and with our 27% increase in this year’s budget, we are striving for an even larger increase on our investment. However, when measuring the success of last year’s festivals across the district, we must be mindful of the fact that many Community led festivals like SOMA, Pride, Red Bull Fox Hunt, Iúr Cinn Fleadh have contributed immensely to the huge economic return that we enjoyed. Therefore, going forward we must insure that those community festivals are given the same opportunity to grow and attract visitors as we are affording to our council led festivals.

"Following departmental advice, the council have made changes to the process through which externally delivered tourism events are to be funded. In the past, community events were funded from the voluntary contribution funding scheme. However, this was not deemed to be the most appropriate process going forward for community events that were clearly tourism events with the ability to attract both national and international visitors. Therefore, community led tourism events would be funded in future through an open funding call from the Tourism budget in the Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism directorate. Any other community event would continue to be funded via voluntary contributions. It is in this funding pot of £1.3Million where we have proposed a 85%/15% split between council led events and community led events. Over the last 3 years, the budget for council events has quadrupled while the budget for community events has been cut by 60%. That means the exponential growth of council events is directly at the cost of community events and its time we addressed this inequality."

Cllr Byrne continued "Our proposal sees an increase of £90,000 for community events while also increasing the council festivals budget by £182,000 for the year ahead. This we believe would ensure equitable growth across our tourism product. Claims from Sinn Fein that we have cut the budget to certain festivals are mind boggling. Our proposals amount to a £60,000 increase to the Festival of flight in Newcastle and a £112,000 increase to the Giants adventure program which incorporates Slieve Gullion’s hugely successful Footsteps in the Forest. It is our job as elected representatives to ensure that this additional funding is put to good use and we build on the past success of these fantastic festivals.

"As a lifelong resident of Slieve Gullion, I have always and will continue to fight for increased investment in the area and I certainly don’t need to be lectured by Sinn Fein on this matter. This is why I find Councillor Mulgrew’s accusation even more bizarre, how can this proposal be a ‘very personal attack’ on community activists? Especially when my proposal was based on their calls for extra funding. This isn’t the first time an accusation of this nature has been levelled against me by Councillor Mulgrew and I would ask that she would retract this bizarre comment."

Concluding Cllr Byrne added "Many SDLP activists and representatives were part of that struggle in the past to ensure South Armagh was treated fairly in terms of inward investment. For one party to claim sole responsibility for the substantial investment Slieve Gullion has received in recent years is arrogant and obscene. It is in fact completely irrelevant to this issue regarding Community Festivals and a desperate attempt to muddy a good news story for community groups and activists, not only in South Armagh but the entire district."

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