23 February 2022
THE decision by Newry, Mourne and Down Council to cancel this summer’s international Festival of Flight in Newcastle was taken without consulting one of its key partners, it has emerged.
Last week’s decision to pull the plug on the event — which was last held in 2019 — was taken in secret during a meeting of the local authority’s Enterprise, Tourist and Regeneration Committee.
It is understood that no contact was made with the Ulster Aviation Society which has played a major role since the inaugural festival and described its disappointment at the cancellation decision.
Regularly attracting in the region of 100,000 people to the resort in the summer, the flagship tourist event has been a major success for over a decade.
Council officials say that due to the challenges in planning such a major festival, securing commitments from participants and with the uncertainty caused to date by the pandemic, organising this year’s event would not be possible.
Some councillors believe that given the local authority’s St Patrick’s Day parades in Downpatrick and Newry are set to go ahead next month and with the further easing of Covid regulations, some form of airshow could have been organised for Newcastle this summer.
This week, Slieve Croob councillor Alan Lewis urging the council to confirm that next year’s festival will go ahead.
The Ulster Aviation Society said it was “disappointed and dismayed” about the cancellation of the airshow and the fact that the organisation had not been consulted.
Society chairman Ray Burrows said it was “astonishing” that the event had been “shot down in secret, with no reasonable explanation”.
Mournes councillor Willie Clarke has urged the local council to “grasp the opportunity” and organise an alternative event, suggesting a large scale festival that incorporates and builds on the most popular elements of the Festival of Flight.
He is keen to see an event showcasing the region’s “outstanding food and drink offering” with Newcastle a designated venue for arts, culture and music events to create opportunities showcasing the entrepreneurial spirit and pioneering innovation of the district.
Mr Burrows said while these were “all excellent suggestions, he said as elements in addition to, or within, the Festival of Flight, surely not as a replacement for it”.
He continued: “That said, we would be pleased indeed to meet with the council or the mayor to discuss the matter. We want to help Newcastle demonstrate in a powerful, popular way how important our aviation future and heritage are to Northern Ireland.
“That’s exactly what did in recent years, before Covid.“We [the UAS] had probably the most popular exhibition within the ground-based event and thousands of parents have brought their children for photographs in our Spitfire and our Alouette helicopter, at no charge.”
Mr Burrows suggested that unless the council’s decision is reversed, or at least re-assessed, he expects there will be tremendous disappointment from the public.
The international festival was cancelled in 2018 because of bad weather and in 2020 and last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic it was also grounded.
Urging the local authority to confirm that it will be chocks away for next summer’s Festival of Flight, Cllr Lewis said that for the past two years, the organisation has been unable to deliver a tourism events programme due to the impact of Covid-19.
“Although the possible impact of future Covid variants is difficult to predict, it is hoped that larger scale events can resume this summer. This will be a welcome boost to residents and the local trade and hospitality sectors,” he continued.
“Council research indicates that almost £10m was generated in 2019 for the district as a direct result of tourism events. Therefore, it is bitterly disappointing that this year’s Festival of Flight will not be going ahead.”
Cllr Lewis said the income that it would have generated would be a welcome boost to traders in the town and benefit the collective tourism industry across South Down.
He continued: “We must not underestimate the huge draw of this annual festival. I note that council officers have said that throughout this past 12 months they had continued to engage with key stakeholders including the RAF.
“It was advised that due to challenges planning the festival, securing air assets and the uncertainty of the pandemic that it has not been possible to host the festival of flight this year.”
Cllr Lewis revealed that he has been contacted by many aviation enthusiasts who are bitterly disappointed that the festival won’t go ahead.
He added: “I fail to see how the event couldn’t have at least been planned for later in the year, now that we know the majority of restrictions are to be lifted. I am asking the council to alleviate fears by confirming that the Festival of Flight hasn’t be shelved. Every effort must be made to ensure this wonderful attraction be returned to Newcastle which has been its home for 12 years.”