Mid Ulster District Council needs to do more to rebuild relationships with bonfire builders in the area, a local councillor has said.
The nationalist-controlled local authority sparked outrage among many unionists and loyalists last year with controversial proposals for the regulation of bonfires on council-owned land.
The council said its draft policy was designed to address health and safety, environmental and other issues, but unionist councillors branded it an “attack on unionist culture” and accused the local authority of being “heavy handed” when it comes to bonfire management.
At a meeting of the council on Thursday night, members agreed to the policy being broadened to include all community events held on council-owned land.
According to the council, the move “formalises the application process for communities to hold events and celebrations, including bonfires, safely while also managing a range of environmental and social impacts.”
“While the policy itself is in its final form, an associated action plan will be developed following further community engagement,” a council spokesperson explained.
“This will include the appointment of a community advisor to consult with local communities and help identify measures which will aid groups to meet the aims of the policy, as well as any further support which the council could consider around diversionary activities and other forms of cultural expression.”
Ulster Unionist councillor Walter Cuddy, who sits on the council’s bonfires working group, insisted the council needs to “do more to build working relationships with bonfire builders, or risk turning bonfires into a battleground.”
He said many bonfire builders in the area broke off relations with council officials more than a year ago and said it is vital the local authority reaches out to them to rebuild relationships and trust.
While acknowledging that health and safety issues need to be dealt with, he said: “We can’t go in heavy handed and think we are going to change people’s minds. All we are going to do is marginalise, alienate and criminalise a section of our society.
“We need to get a third party facilitator on board, someone the bonfire builders respect. Forget about policies, forget about action plans. We haven’t got to that stage yet until we build trust with these groups.
“We need to bring everybody on board. It may take time and money, but it is something that has to be done. It is the only way things are going to be resolved.”
The council’s revised policy was produced following a 13-week public consultation on a ‘draft policy for the management of bonfires’ which took place from June to September 2018.