Belfast City Council’s debate last night on a provocative bonfire motion was needless, only making a difficult situation worse.
The special council meeting (see link to report below) was requisitioned by five Sinn Fein councillors and unwisely agreed by the Alliance Lord Mayor.
She had the power to turn down the requisition for a special meeting but chose to run with it.
The motion as originally submitted by Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh read, “This Council gives permission to our Council Officers to remove bonfire materials or employ contractors to facilitate the removal of bonfire materials from Council sites and other sites which belong to Statutory Agencies and those which are in private ownership.”
Its purpose was double edged in trying to address internment celebration bonfires in nationalist areas on August 8 while also appealing to nationalist prejudices and those of the Alliance Party about July 11 bonfires.
It has to be said that council officials with the best of intentions tried last month to reduce the scale of some July 11 bonfires by removal of pallets. This effort was rigorously criticised by republicans and has led now to an unnecessary internal council inquiry.
In a second attempt to prevent greater bonfire size, it was agreed to issue an injunction regarding certain council owned sites. This was only partially successful in the increasingly polarised situation but the city council – unlike other statutory agencies – did try to reduce fire risk. Those efforts were supported by my party.
The initial motion in its first part restated the existing powers of council.
Obviously it has the power to act on its own property as it sees fit. The motion was not urgent, as is required, and the second part was not even lawful as it permitted council staff to go on to the property of third parties and forcibly remove goods which it does not own.
If officers are specifically given the power to roam around the city looking for bonfire material it can only worsen an existing problem while I can point them to loads of dumped material on private property all over the place but doubt it will ever be removed.
The Alliance Party should have refused to call this meeting and officials should have used their influence in that regard too. It was a cynical and costly exercise by Sinn Fein that won’t bring us any closer to a resolution, be it on August 8 or next July 11.
It was simply an exercise in stoking the flames.
Naomi Long’s statement in support of the Sinn Fein motion that it was “to restore the long-standing policy of council that staff have permission to remove materials where it is possible and is the agreed course of action, as recent political disputes have unpicked that” is complete nonsense.
Council has always had, and always maintained, the power to act on its own property and never had the power over anyone else’s property except in tightly controlled circumstances such as environmental protection.
Jeffrey Dudgeon, UUP councillor, Belfast