SF wants all councils to get bonfire powers

Press Eye Belfast - Northern Ireland 11th July 2017''Workmen board up windows of property beside a bonfire at the end of the Comber Greenway off Ravenscroft Avenue in east Belfast. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com
Press Eye Belfast - Northern Ireland 11th July 2017''Workmen board up windows of property beside a bonfire at the end of the Comber Greenway off Ravenscroft Avenue in east Belfast. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com

Sinn Féin will seek to give councils across Northern Ireland ­— not just in Belfast — the power to remove materials from bonfires deemed dangerous, damaging or which facilitate “hate crimes”.

That is according to the leader of the Sinn Féin grouping on Belfast City Council, Jim McVeigh, whose controversial motion seeking exactly those powers for his own council was passed by a majority vote on Wednesday night.

Mr McVeigh said his party was adopting a “consistent approach” to bonfires “across the board” and said similar motions can be expected elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

The DUP, however, hopes to throw a spanner in the works in Belfast, where Mr McVeigh’s controversial motion was passed.

DUP Councillor Lee Reynolds told the News Letter his party is seeking to have the decision ‘called in’.

They are making use of a mechanism designed to protect minority rights at the local government level.

The decision of Belfast City Council to back the Sinn Féin motion was strenuously opposed by unionists on Wednesday, who questioned Sinn Féin’s intentions for submitting the motion.

Councillor Reynolds explained his party’s reasoning for seeking to ‘call-in’ the decision.

“There’s two grounds,” he said. “One is on the process and the other is on detrimental community impact.”

Sinn Féin’s Mr McVeigh said, however: “We’re not particularly worried about it.”

Referring to bonfires outside Belfast City Council which might meet the same criteria spelled out in his motion, Mr McVeigh said: “Our position on this is consistent across the board. It doesn’t matter whether it is in Derry or Antrim or Belfast.”

Asked if that meant Sinn Féin would be submitting similar motions in council’s across Northern Ireland, Mr McVeigh said: “We will. Our position is going to be consistent across the board.”

He continued: “Where there are bonfires — and we don’t care whether they are so-called anti-interment bonfires or Eleventh Night bonfires, or anything else in between — we have to be consistent. ”

The DUP, however, are hoping that policy won’t get off the ground even in Belfast.

The DUP’s group leader on Belfast City Council, Lee Reynolds, explained his party’s grounds for ‘calling in’ the council’s decision.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “We adopted a new policy with no committee scrutiny, no legal advice, nothing. We went outside the normal channels of developing a new policy. It went outside our equality scheme. That new policy was not subject to an equality impact assessment.”

Explaining the community impact grounds, Councillor Reynolds continued: “The potential impact is disproportionately on one side of the community. If you adopt this policy the impact is disproportionately on the communities who have bonfires, and unionists have many, many more bonfires. It’s quite simple.”

Councillor McVeigh said that he is “not surprised” the DUP are seeking to have the decision called in but that Sinn Féin expect the challenge to be unsuccessful.

“We would be pretty confident it’s not going to go anywhere. Our argument would be that the motion that passed is not directed at any one community.

“The initial problem, and the reason we had to have this in the first place, was to do with problems with eighth of August bonfires. The 11th was already over. We’re quite confident if it goes to a legal opinion that the decision of the council will be confirmed. We’re not particularly worried about it.”

He continued: “Yes, there are more bonfires in the unionist community but this isn’t about all bonfires. This is about the small number of bonfires that are either dangerous or decked out in sectarian material. The motion isn’t an attack on all loyalist bonfires.”

A Belfast City Council spokesperson said: “We can confirm that a call-in request has been submitted and is currently being examined.”

The motion approved by Belfast City Council during a special sitting on Wednesday evening, proposed by Councillor Jim McVeigh, reads: “This council is opposed to bonfires where they present a threat to life, to property, to the environment, where they cause damage to public amenities and where they facilitate hate crime. On the basis of these concerns, 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.”