ARDS and North Down Council descended into an unholy row over July 12 funding last week, centring on what did or didn’t count as a religious group.

With this year’s Twelfth celebrations centring on Ward Park and expected to bring about 3,000 people to Bangor, two Orange Lodges applied for grants from a joint council and Stormont events and festival fund.

They were ruled out before applications were even assessed, with judges stating they ran afoul of Stormont rules that mean any groups that are ‘perceived to support or promote any religious or political dimension’ cannot access the cash pot.

Aggrieved unionists wanted to overturn that decision, with DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen pointing out that the Friends of Columbanus group had won £4,000 for its festival, yet that could be held to be promoting religion.

The Columbanus group was set up to celebrate the life and works of a Christian saint, which, Mr McIlveen argued, necessarily means promoting a religious aspect.

“Either we apply consistency in how we look at these things, or there’s just no point doing it,” he said.

Alderman Wesley Irvine suggested that the two Orange Lodge applications should be properly assessed with a view to qualifying them for the highest tranche of funding, which won enthusiastic backing from unionist councillors.

The highest tranche would mean the lodges could potentially get up to £20,000 in grant cash.

Council officials cautioned, however, that breaking with rules set down by Stormont could mean government departments refuse to pay for their part of the grants, and the council would then have to cover the entirety of any money awarded to the lodges itself.

Alliance alderman Scott Wilson felt it was a clear case of the lodges failing Stormont’s criteria, pointing out that the Orange Order describes itself as ‘a membership organisation comprised of protestants who are committed to the protection of the principles of the Protestant Reformation and the glorious revolution of 1688’.

“That’s either political or religious, or both,” he said, adding that the St Columbanus festival is a cross-community event involving walking tours and readings educating people about a historical Bangor figure.

Said Mr Wilson: “It seems pretty black and white that one is promoting religion or politics and one isn’t.”

During a subsequent and at times vituperative debate, several unionists went on tangents variously attacking the council and those against putting the lodges’ applications through by accusing them of being opposed to the Twelfth, the Orange Order, and Orange culture in general.

The Twelfth would be ‘respectful and positive’, they argued, and is as historical as St Columbanus, with DUP alderman Naomi Armstrong-Cotter stating that everyone in the borough ‘could and should’ enjoy the July 12 events.

Their attacks were refuted by Alliance alderman Gavin Walker, who pointed out that this year’s Twelfth is taking place on a large amount of council land in the heart of Bangor, with the council helping out with car parking.

Other opponents of the move felt that changing eligibility for grants solely for the Orange Lodges after the application and assessment process has closed isn’t fair on anyone else who was disqualified – or, for that matter, those who didn’t apply at all because they felt they wouldn’t meet the criteria.

And councillor Ray McKimm complained that the council didn’t seem to have a working definition of what constitutes a group that promotes religious or political matters, adding that the local authority needs to set one down before next year’s grants process begins.

Unionists managed to push through the change, meaning the two Orange Lodges will now be assessed for council grants.