Sinn Fein bonfire motion is ‘simply an attempt to poke the Prods in the eye’ says unionist

The Alliance Party and PUP are opposing a Sinn Fein motion tonight at Belfast City Council which would create a bonfire licencing system which it has been suggested could put bonfires on council property ‘out of existence’.

By Philip Bradfield
Monday, 4th October 2021, 3:29 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 9:29 am

Sinn Fein says it has brought the motion in response to increasing numbers of “monster” bonfires in the city, but the PUP says the proposals are unenforceable and that engagement is proving much more productive.

Some of the key requirements of the proposal would be that permission would have to be requested by a constituted organisation and that a risk assessment would have to be agreed with the PSNI, Fire Service and Belfast City Council. The scheme would also require public liability insurance, an event management plan and public consultation with residents.

Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie said this morning that there had been an increase in larger bonfires and that his party had been contacted by unionist residents throughout the city who feel “abandoned”.

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Sinn Fein planned to introduce strict regulations on bonfires

He dismissed what he said were unionist calls for “self regulation” which he did not think were credible. And he said he was “disappointed” that the Alliance Party was not supporting the motion and surprised that the Green Party had so far abstained on the matter at committee level.

However PUP councillor John Kyle described the Sinn Fein analysis as “a very inaccurate and skewed and dishonest picture” of the current situation.

“It is unenforceable,” he said of the proposals. “It is an attempt to undermine unionist and loyalist culture. It is Sinn Fein being provocative and causing trouble. We are not asking for permission for these monstrous bonfires. We are asking for community engagement.”

He said the best approach to improve safety was through community engagement. Although one youth was seriously injured at a bonfire last summer in Ballysillan, Dr Kyle told Good Morning Ulster the best way to prevent such things was through engagement and education.

Alliance Party Nuala McAllister said her party is not supporting the motion but is offering an amendment. She said the issue was much bigger than bonfires located on property belonging to Belfast City Council and as a result, the party is instead calling for a review of all bonfires during the 2020/21 season.

The party is also said a much better way forward would be for Sinn Fein to immediately publish the long delayed report from the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture & Tradition (FICT), along with an action plan to take forward the findings.

Her party was key in setting up the council incentivised council bonfire scheme, which provides financial incentives for compliance with good conduct at bonfires, and which she said had been working well.

But her party has also taken a firm stand on problem bonfires when they arose.She said that the PSNI and NIHE had both clearly said that bonfires were not necessarily illegal.

“This motion will not go anywhere” she concluded, branding it “unrealistic” and added that it would likely only cause more problems next year as a reaction. She firmly rejected suggestions that the Alliance Party was soft pedalling on the motion so as not to alienate moderate unionist voters ahead of the next Assembly election.

Former Belfast UUP councillor Chris McGimpsey questioned the bona fides of Sinn Fein in proposing the scheme.

“I think most unionists will believe this is simply having another go - poke the Prods in the eye - make things more difficult and stir things up,” he said.

He said most ordinary unionists are in favour of watching the bonfires.

Sinn Fein’s Donal Lyons rejected Talkback’s suggestion that the exhaustive requirements of the Sinn Fein motion would amount to an outright ban on bonfires. He said eleven different councils had different approaches and that Belfast City Council wanted to take a lead.There are up to 90 bonfires a year in the city, he said, the “vast majority” of which pose no problems. However he said the recent phenomenon of “monster bonfires” meant that residential houses needed added protections from the heat and also from the collapse of such massive structures.

Mr Lyons said that without the support of the Alliance Party, it would be too close a vote to say whether or not the motion would pass tonight. He rejected a suggestion from the BBC that the rigorous requirements of the motion would, in effect, put bonfires out of existence. In response, he said insurance was easily available for November bonfires and that public agencies carry out regular consultations on all manner of issues. He said Mr Justice Horner had found intimidatory acts association with a bonfire in Adams Street last summer in north Belfast.

Asked who would fund and enforce the council policy, if passed, he said the council already spends about £600,000 a year on bonfire schemes and clean ups. He added that he did not think it was “the right model” to have the PSNI guard contractors who were tasked with removing problem bonfires, but did not specify exactly how such a policy would otherwise be enforced.

Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson told the News Letter that Belfast City Council is a public body bound by the Human Rights Act.

“Bonfires plainly engage the Article 10 and 11 Rights of the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist community to freedom of expression and association and there has been no consideration given as to how this policy would interfere with these fundamental rights,” he said. “It is therefore arguably unlawful and if passed could give rise to a challenge on European Convention of Human Rights grounds. The ‘bonfire guidance’ purported to have been issued by the High Court is of no binding force or effect. Unionists should be quick to ensure nationalism can’t hide behind those speculative remarks.”

In a statement this afternoon, the Green Party on Belfast City council appeared to echo the Alliance Party’s position.

They called for “an immediate review” of the 2021 bonfire season, to include elected representatives, statutory agencies and bonfire builders. Green councilors are also calling upon the Executive Office to publish the delayed Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT) report.

The party said the report remains unpublished despite reporting its findings to the First and Deputy First Ministers over a year ago - and after the Assembly voted for its publication in July.

Green Party Deputy Leader, Councillor Mal O’Hara said the party supports “a transition” away from bonfires to beacons on council sites within a time bound period.

“The five Executive parties’ repeated failure to deliver a way forward on bonfires has left local councils with the task of attempting to fill the vacuum of ministerial political leadership,” he said. “It is imperative that the Executive release the FICT report that they commissioned, but can’t agree to implement or allow the public to have sight of.”

The DUP has not offered any comment today.

The Sinn Fein motion to be debated this evening at Belfast City Council is as follows;- 

“After multiple incidents, including the tragic incident in Ballysillan on 11th July, this Council agrees to remove all bonfire materials from Belfast City Council assets, unless permission has been granted through an application process. A bonfire application must include:  permission being requested by a constituted organisation; a risk assessment provided by the applicant and agreed with the PSNI, Fire Service and landowner (BCC); Public Liability Insurance; an Event Management Plan; a commitment to ensuring that there will be no burning of any toxic materials (e.g. tyres); an Entertainments Licence; the demonstration of sufficient consultation with local residents; and a site cleansing plan. In addition: The display or burning of offensive materials such as flags, emblems, effigies, and posters will not be permitted and a commitment must be provided. Any breaches will impact upon future applications; and Bonfire Beacons will be preferred, unless an applicant can demonstrate the necessity and safety of a non-structured bonfire. Any failure to follow an open, transparent, robust and successful application procedure for a bonfire will result in the Council requesting the support of the PSNI to provide protection to our contractors for the removal of materials. Applications must be received three months before a planned event.”

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