A Sinn Fein proposal authorising Belfast City Council officers to ‘remove bonfire materials from all sites’ has been branded “sinister” and a form of “cultural dictation” by unionist councillors.
The motion – which if passed could lead to the clearance of sites on both council-owned and private land – is to be debated at a special council meeting on August 2.
It is understood Sinn Fein presented the necessary signatures of five councillors to Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister to trigger the controversial debate.
In a statement yesterday, Sinn Fein said: “The decision to call the special council meeting has been taken due to the refusal of the unionist parties to agree to permit the council to remove bonfire materials from all sites.
“These bonfires are a threat to life and to property. No bonfire is a safe bonfire.”
Although the current bonfire tensions are centred on a small number of nationalist ‘anti internment’ events next month, it appears the motion is designed to prevent the greater number of loyalist bonfires taking place every July.
Lee reynolds, DUP group leader on the council, said: “This is an attempt to bounce the council into a bad policy without committee scrutiny, without full advice from officers, to compel other agencies to act outside their powers and to prejudice the review and investigation.”
Independent unionist Ruth Patterson said she viewed the motion as “a very strategic and sinister move by Sinn Fein,” to damage unionist culture.
With unionists in a minority on Belfast City Council it is possible the motion could be passed – leading to further scrutiny of the proposals by the relevant committee.
Mr Reynolds said a “bonfire review” was completed less than six months ago and the Sinn Fein proposals were not raised at that time.
“Another review and investigation into the bonfire scheme is presently under way. The work to take all aspects of the Twelfth celebrations forward positively will be through the upcoming [cultural] convention. It will not be through cultural dictation by Sinn Fein or their political allies,” he added.
In the Sinn Fein statement, councillor Jim McVeigh goes on to describe bonfires as a “magnet for anti-social behaviour,” and adds: “Sectarian hate crimes, racist hate crimes, the burning of stolen property, appalling physical and environmental damage occur at these sites, and not only that but the ratepayers of this city have to foot the cost of this year in and year out. Laws are being broken and this council has a duty to act.”
Ms Patterson said the timing of the motion coincided with concerns over bonfires in nationalist areas, but added: “I think this is a move by Sinn Fein to ensure that next year’s bonfires, particularly within the loyalist community, are going to receive the same sort of treatment. It is a very strategic and sinister move in relation to the future gathering of bonfire material.”
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers has also expressed concerns at what he called a “nonsense” motion.
“The problems that there have been up at Stormont – where they can’t at the minute form an Executive – are manifesting themselves on Belfast City Council.
“Sinn Fein just don’t care. They are not interested in stability or building our city,” he said.
Mr Rodgers said removing bonfire material could put staff at risk. He added: “To me this motion is a nonsense. They are really putting pressure on the officers of the council.”