Shock, anger and disappointment at behind doors cancellation of 2022 Festival of Flight.

5th April 2022

On the evening of Tuesday 15th February, the Mourne Observer Newspaper broke the news via a preview of their front page for their Wednesday 16th February edition that the 2022 Festival of Flight would not be happening after the 2022 events schedule did not include the hugely popular airshow.

Come Wednesday more details emerged with a very short statement that “There would not be time to plan a 2022 Festival of Flight”

However, there was considerable anger that the decision was made behind closed doors, in a closed session of the councils Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism Committee meaning on the 14th February meaning no public minutes or audio of the meeting was available for that particular session.

The Minutes of the ERT meeting are published on the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council website, and the majority of the 14/2/2022 meeting will be published, however the ‘closed session’ parts of the ERT meeting are not included.

The reason given via the meeting agenda is that “This item is deemed to be restricted by virtue of paragraph 3 part 1 of schedule 6 of the local government act 2014 (Northern Ireland) – Information relating to the financial or businesses affairs of any particular person (Including Council holding that information) and public may, by resolution, be excluded during this item of business.

Cllr Willie Clarke of Sinn Fien spoke to the Mourne Observer saying “though this will be disappointing to regular visitors to the airshow, an opportunity exits to host a new large scale festival in Newcastle this summer, which incorporates and builds on the most popular elements of the festival – A showcase of the outstanding food and drink of the region and Newcastle alongside incorporating the arts, culture and music, creating opportunities to showcase the entrepreneurial spirit and pioneering innovation of the district.”

Cllr Clarke went on to suggest that a festival should be arranged around Irish mythology And “nautical theme celebrating the rich maritime history of the area” And while may thought this could be a good idea, they overwhelmingly felt that these should be in addition to the Festival of Flight and not in place of the airshow that attracts up to 100,000 spectators every year to Newcastle.

Many flocked to social media to vent their anger and frustration at the council saying the cancellation of the show was short sighted and feared the council was quietly shelving the airshow completely including members of the local business community, fans of the show and former RAF Red Arrows crew member.

AirshowsNI has reached out to all Cllrs on the Newry Mourne and Down district Council and the overwhelming response has been that they will fight to keep the airshow in town as a flagship event.

Speaking to AirshowsNI, Cllr Kathryn Owen of the DUP expressed her disappointment at the cancellation of the event and told me she had been making inquiries into the cancellation of the show. Cllr Owen continued by telling AirshowsNI “Usually, the summer’s event calendar is approved the September of the previous year to allow planning for the proposed events.

Due to covid, the calendar for this summer was unable to be signed off last September due to the uncertainty of restrictions. Instead, it was tabled at this month’s ERT committee meeting.

As you can appreciate, the Festival of Flight takes months and months of logistical planning. To start in March to plan for an Air show for this summer would be unsafe.”

She also said that the DUP councillors elected to NMD council “plan to propose at the full Council on the 7th of March that the date is firmed in the events calendar for next year to ensure that the Festival of Flight is a secured event.

Cllr Alan Lewis of the UUP issued a statement saying “Council must move to set aside fears and confirm that the festival will return in 2023“ he continued by saying ““I note that 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”

This is very reassuring. It does seem the council had plans for the Airshow to take place in 2022. Airshows need a lot of planning and the uncertainty around Covid meant the council could not commit to a show in 2022 by the time a decision should have been made last September. They had engagement with the RAF and other displays, as well as other key stakeholders. There was an intention to try and hold a show.

Cllr Lewis closed by saying “ I have been contacted by many enthusiasts who are bitterly disappointed, 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 ask that council move 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 as it has been annually for this last twelve years” Cllr Lewis full statement can be read on the Newcastle Festival of Flight Facebook page as well as Northern Ireland and Ireland Airshows Facebook page and will soon be available on the AirshowsNI website.

It does seem that many Cllrs and the events team themselves only found out shortly before the Mourne Observer broke the news as not all sit on the ERT Committee.

Ulster Aviation Society Chairman Ray Burrows told the Belfast Telegraph that the UAS had not been consulted about the decision. He added it was “astonishing” that the event had been “shot down in secret, with no reasonable explanation”

The Ulster Aviation Society are the most popular on the ground display. Thousands flock to Castle Park to see their Spitfire “Down” as well as other items such as their Tucano and Helicopters and have been a supporter of the Newcastle Festival of Flight since the beginning.

Anger now seems to be directed at the lack of transparency regarding the cancellation and the council have now said the following to the Down Recorder Newspaper

“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.”

As mentioned, the DUP will be tabling a motion for the council to commit to the 2023 airshow and this seems to have cross party support given Cllr Lewis statement.

Cllr Patrick Brown of the Alliance Party suggested he would agree with the position of the DUP and that the decision came out of nowhere with “little consolation of Councillors. In an Email to AirshowsNI, Cllr Brown said the following.

“ I have been to the festival of flight several times and it is a fantastic, family friendly day out and a real asset to the Newcastle area. I was very disappointed to see it wouldn’t be going ahead this year.

I don’t sit on the committees responsible for this but I am very concerned that this seems to have come out of nowhere with little consultation of councillors. I see that the DUP in council have posted publicly about this and I would tend to agree with their position, and will ask similar questions if and when it’s brought to council. It may be too late for this year but I would be very supportive of ensuring we put in place plans to bring the festival back next year.”

I think most elected to Newry Mourne and Down District Council realise just how important the airshow is to the Newcastle area, the many thousands who come to Newcastle with their families, the large base of Aviation enthusiasts and the local businesses who rely on the bumper trade the airshow brings.

Many businesses have expressed their disappointment in this weeks Mourne Observer Newspaper

Niall Carolan, General manager of O’Hares in Newcastle spoke to the Mourne Observer.

Niall told the Mourne Observer: “It will massively affect us and massively affect the town. Many businesses in the town, mainly along the promenade as that’s where most of the businesses in the town are, will be affected.

Niall said the Festival of Flight is a huge day for business in Newcastle.

“It is one of the busiest days in the year. You will have people queueing up in the morning to get their seats from about 11 o’clock “Everyone’s business increases massively on that day, but it is not just that day, you get the whole weekend out of it usually.

“People will do Airbnb so then they will get four or five days out of it.

“That filters down into every bar and restaurant in town. It filters down to taxi drivers and chip shops.

“We own the Avoca Hotel and here, so we have a lot of rooms, a lot of bars and a lot of staff.”

He said that the hotel and guest house would be booked out a month in advance. But at the moment there are no bookings for that period in August.

Niall said that he felt more could be done by the council.

AirshowsNI also got a response from a spokesperson of Newry Mourne and Down District Councils Chairperson, Sinn Fein’s Cathy Mason saying the following

“Proposals for Newry, Mourne and Down District Council’s 2022-23 Tourism Events Programme have not yet been considered by full Council. Details of the confirmed Events Programme will be announced in due course, subject to ratification by full Council.”

This statement however was just reiterating word for word what was said earlier from the council and provided no information or personal thought on the show and its cancellation.

TUV Cllr, and MLA Candidate for South Down, Harold McKee told AirshowsNI “Like yourselves I am disappointed in no air show this year again. Covid regulations was one thing but now we are all being told regulations have changed, it is now guidance.

I always looked forward to this day, it was a big crowd gathering day in Newcastle. I always liked the morning launch of the air show day accompanied with tea/coffee. It was a place of meeting with friends but most importantly it was a precursor to a massive tourism financial spend in Newcastle. It was a tremendous extravaganza to watch so many flights taking place in our sky’s.

I will continue to investigate the reasons why this display was cancelled.”

As of the time of writing, the only party not to provide quotes are the SDLP, however they did acknowledge the request for one at the time of contact.

In the full council meeting held at the beginning of March, a motion was brought to the council to secure the airshow in 2023.

Rowallane DUP Cllr Kathryn Owen voiced her disappointment that the festival will not be going ahead in 2022, and said that its “impact on businesses and aviation enthusiasts went beyond Newcastle.

She then asked for an assurance that the popular crowd puller would be “put into the events calendar for next year”

Before the issue was discussed, once again in private, council officials said that it would be “premature” to determine the organisation’s 2023/24 events programme before costings had been determined.

When the press were allowed back into the online meeting, it was confirmed that the Council would work towards putting the Festival of Flight into the 2023/24 events programme, subject to approval from its Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism Committee.

While this is not an outright guarantee, it is reassuring to see that they will at least work towards putting the very popular airshow back on the events schedule in 2023.

My own personal thoughts – Losing the 2022 Festival of Flight is a huge loss for the Newcastle area, I have been attending Airshows for nearly 40 years and nothing beats having a show in your own home town. I do hope the show returns in 2023 and I am very pleased to see multiple parties commit to ensuring the Festival of Flight returns in 2023.

The council did give the reason that there was not enough time to arrange an airshow in 2022, however I seriously question this as 3 other major airshows are to go ahead on the Island of Ireland. Bray, Portrush and Birr will be making welcome returns, with two of them securing participation from the RAF and one also securing participation from an over-seas Air Force. If they are able to arrange airshows with both RAF and international participation, I question why this was not done by Newry Mourne and Down District Council.

I would urge the council to also look into how they could evolve the airshow.

Most other seaside shows, including those on the Island of Ireland in Portrush and Bray are multi day airshows and frequently acquire displays from international participants.

The Frecce Tricolori, Patrouille Suisse, Royal Jordanian Falcons as well as F16 & F18 demos have displayed at other shows on this island and I believe for the Newcastle Festival of Flight to continue to succeed they need to explore new and exciting displays including ‘International displays’ as well as looking into adding a 2nd day to compete with other shows throughout the British Isles.

I strongly believe there is no reason why the council could not apply for displays such as, but not limited to the international teams mentioned above if they are willing to show a bit of ambition to evolve the show.

The main issue for myself, and many is how this was handled. 2 months on from the show being cancelled we still have not had any official statement from the council and are still relying on Cllrs and MLAs etc to provide statements.

Keeping the whole thing behind closed doors on both the initial decision and later at the full council meeting to secure the Festival of Flight for 2023 has seriously damaged the council’s reputation with the airshow going communities and not consulting one of their key partners, the Ulster Aviation Society is shocking.

Why were these meetings held in private, away from accountability with press being asked to leave the room? Who made the decisions? And why are rate payers in Newry Mourne and Down District council being deprived of answers as to what has happened? Even the minute meetings for both the ERT and Full Council do not make mention of anything regarding the Festival of Flight.

There is no reason as to why Cllr Clarkes idea can not also take place, either alongside the Festival of Flight, or as another festival. I have long said Newcastle is a fantastic town and draws massive crowds and I believe the council need to be ambitious to market the area, the more festivals, even community lead festivals we can bring to Newcastle, the better for the town and the council.

Newcastle has already lost so much due to Covid. While fireworks took place in Newry and Downpatrick for Halloween, Newcastle was over-looked and left with nothing, and it has happened again with the Airshow.

The council want to make this area one of the go-to tourism options on the Island of Ireland, however taking away festivals like the airshow and events like Halloween Fireworks, that thousands, and tens of thousands of people come to every year is very regressive, especially as we look to make a massive recovery from Covid.

I believe the Festival of Flight has a bright future. Not having one in 2022 is a huge setback as we come out of the Covid pandemic but with multi party support for a show in 2023 and beyond, I do believe we could well be hearing the roar of jet engines above Dundrum bay once again. I just ask all on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council to commit to, and grow on the continued success of the airshow that we saw in pre-pandemic times.

Thank you.

Jace – AirshowsNI

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