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LICENCED BONFIRES PLAN BY COUNCIL

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

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BONFIRE builders in the Mid-Ulster Council area could soon require a licence and insurance, following a special meeting of the Environment Committee.

The meeting, called by Sinn Fein members, was criticised by unionists as an attack on unionist culture, while the Committee's chair, Ronan McGinley, stated that the meeting "went well" and rejected any claims of attack on culture.

Sinn Fein Councillor John McNamee said that coming up to the 12th of July "it's just hate season of everything nationalist on a bonfire", while Councillor Clement Cuthbertson, Dungannon DUP member, said nationalists "we re attacking unionist working class traditions" while dressing it up as something else.

Following a lengthy debate, the Council agreed to "engage with local communities who wish to host and those who do not wish to host" bonfires, to put bonfires using illegal practices on a "risk register" and to look at introducing an "application process for use of Council property" for bonfires, including "certain criteria that has to be met".

Throughout the debate, the Council's Director of Public Health and Infrastructure, Mark Kelso stressed that the Council "does not actively encourage or facilitate using its property for bonfire activity" and "these events have been brought to the Council premises".

The DUP was criticised by Sinn Fein's Brian McGuigan for failing to show leadership and for not attending the Council's Bonfire Working Group, which was set up in January this year.

It was disclosed that the Council had spent over 17,000 cleaning up bonfires at six of its sites, with almost half of the cost made up of putting the remains in landfill.

Clement Cuthbertson of the DUP congratulated bonfire builders in Killymerron but said the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) should be taking a more active role in clearing away toxic materials.

John McNamee, a Sinn Fein representative for Cookstown, enquired as to whether any residents from Killymoon had requested compensation for smoke damage.

It was confirmed that one complaint had been received and one formal complaint made. Mr Kelso stated the request for compensation had been declined following advice from the Council's insurers.

Sean McGuigan, Sinn Fein representative for Clogher Valley, stated there were "definitely issues" at the bonfire at Killymerron in Dung annon.

"Two MPs [Michelle Gildernew and Francie Molloy] were called in the early hours of the morning by residents.

The bonfire was 80 foot so it was a significant bonfire.

"A number of people when asking about said they were concerned about it. They have a concern and aren't sure how to address it." It was then claimed by Torrent Sinn Fein Councillor Joe O'Neill that "instead of putting the fire out", fire officers were "hosing houses down".

However, that claim was strenuously denied by the DUP's Clement Cuthbertson, who said: "Residents have told me they did not hose down any properties".

The Fire Service's Western Area Commander, Mark Deeney, then spoke and rejected an earlier claim by Cllr Cuthbertson that the Fire Service had stated none of the bonfires in the locality provided an imminent risk, saying: "We have not stated that at all".

Cllr Brian McGuigan then enquired as to what comeback residents in Killymerron had in relation to insurance, but Cllr McGinley said there was no "concrete information" in that regard.

Cllr Cuthbertson stated his belief the Council was not responsible for any damage caused, saying: "Yes we have sympathy and we don't want to see anyone at a loss because of potential damage that may be caused.

"Council is not responsible for all damage done, not just by bonfires but bombings, fire bombings and shootings in our town centres down through the years.

The Council wasn't responsible for all that damage caused.

Cllr McNamee then again raised the issue of compensation saying "there could be more letters seeking compensation".

"It's easy for us to say it's nothing to do with us, it was on our property. There's a lot of houses there. If they take us to court, are we liable and have we budgeted for this?" Mr Kelso stated the Council would be "in a position of robust denial of liability" and said the Council was looking at risk assessment.

However, Cllr Brian McGuigan stated his continued concerns and said bonfire builders have "no right to be on" Council property as they were there without per mission.

He said: "There are public liability issues.

We are at serious risk if there was any claim for injury. At the very least this has to be recorded on the risk register. If we give out a grant to anyone within the Council area in terms of any community festival we request insurance to cover that. Say my party applies to parade down a road we have to put our names to that because we are responsible for what takes place during that parade.

"There's nothing to indicate there's any application being made to build a bonfire on Council property.

There's no attack here on culture regardless of where it's coming from but there's responsibility regarding how those are managed.

If we do a risk assessment we are basically saying they have a right to be there.

They have no right to be on there because we have not given per mission." Mr Kelso replied: "Because we are placing it on a risk register it doesn't mean we are condoning." The Chair of the meeting, Torrent Councillor Ronan McGinley then introduced the idea of some form of licencing and insurance He said: "Are we not in a position to look at criteria for people using Council property having to provide certain criteria and provide insurance. Is there not some level of accountability?" Councillor Martin Kearney of the SDLP agreed, saying licencing "would bring in an additional level of safety.

That would reduce the number of bonfires that are most unsafe." However, Mr Kelso said "that would be a legislative process and the Assembly would be required for that." Cllr McGinley suggested they might still be able to move in that direction, saying: "Why aren't we looking at this? There is some sort of obligation for licencing and accountability." Cookstown member Mark Glasgow of the UUP stated it appeared to him the Council seemed to be looking at setting up a "bonfire commission", akin to the Parades Commission.

His argument was rejected by Cllr McGinley. He sad: "I didn't hear anyone comparing the activity.

It was the process of the activity. Are you suggesting you don't agree with accountability and safety?" Cllr Glasgow confirmed that "safety is first and foremost but before we put the cart before the horse we need to look at everything involved in this".

"I'm not sure where you are getting 'cart before the house'", replied Cllr McGinley.

Cllr Glasgow replied that "it seems we are now bypassing the working group and moving on to something else" Cllr McGinley said he "hadn't heard this at all" before he and Cllr Brian McGuigan said "one party decided not to turn up" to the Bonfire Working Group.

Torrent member Joe O'Neill of Sinn Fein then interjected, saying: "I can't believe what I'm hearing. If one person falls off a bonfire are we going to pay out? This is crazy, we have to stop this immediately." Cllr McGinley then asked him to clarify his remarks, saying: "Can I clarify are you asking for risk management or a stop? Risk management? "Yes, risk management," replied Cllr O'Neill.

Frances, Burton, DUP member for Clogher Valley, then enquired as to what moves could be made to trace tyres.

However, Cllr Cuthbertson stated that was "a responsibility of the NIEA" and Cllr McGinley said there was "a fine line between what we can do and what other people's responsibilities are".

Cllr McNamee then directed the debate towards some of the items placed on bonfires and the effect on good relations in the community.

"Burning of effigies is having a serious impact on good relations," he said. "For a number of years I have reported to Police the theft of posters. What steps are they taking with this? You come to the 12th of July and it's just hate season of everything nationalist on a bonfire.

Children are watching that. Nationalist communities are looking at Sinn Fein, SDLP posters, Irish flags and people are roaring and celebrating people going up in flames. I think it's disgusting and something needs to be done about it." Councillor Cuthbertson said good relations were being endangered by the actions of the Mid-Ulster District Council itself.

He said: "Only for the fact there was so much shouting done in other areas I believe some of the bonfires may not have been quite so big. If you feel your traditions are under threat, you go out to do them in a bigger and a better w ay.

"I feel this Council has had a detrimental effect on good relations. On the legacy Council in Dungannon there was a better understanding in relation to working with issues that could be confrontational. This Council has jumped feet first in relation to signage or whatever it is and silly decisions in relation to Council property. Council needs to tread carefully." Cllr McGinley disagreed, saying: "Anything I have heard tonight I have not heard as an attack on culture.

We are talking about illegal activity and posters and effigies and people in this room who have been burned in terms of their posters.

We are having a mature, structured discussion in terms of how we can make things respectful." The committee chair's cut no ice with Cllr Cuthbertson, however.

He said: "Everyone is coming across that they are concerned about health and safety but people aren't stupid. We know what your party has done. You are attacking unionist working class traditions and that's what this is about. There's a debate of should election posters be on bonfires but if parties would come out quicker to take them down. Some might say this is a good way of redding them up.

"I need to remind people there was poppy wreaths burnt at a bonfire in Londonderry, a poster glorifying the murder of Lee Rigby and an effigy of a Police vehicle." This again prompted Cllr McGinley to state his rejection of Cllr Cuthbertson's claims.

He said: "You mention Sinn Fein made an attempt to attack culture. I disagree with that. It's something me and you can discuss outside if you wish. We aren't behind the door condemning this. If I knew your poster was on top of a bonfire I would say that was wrong. The posters are stolen during the election process, not after it." Cllr McNamee then stated Cllr Cuthbertson's comments regarding dual language signage as "outrageous" and claimed the burning of flags and posters and bonfires were "hate crimes".

He said: "It's the same hate crime year after year after year and there doesn't seem to be anyone prosecuted. It sends a terrible message to see young kids around a bonfire and people going up in flames and then laughing at it.

When the nationalist community sees it it has a negative impact on good relations." While not a member of the committee, Cllr Trevor Wilson, Cookstown UUP member, was seated in the public area, and said many people would see the meeting as "an attack on unionist culture" and suggested engagement with local communities as a better way forward.

Again, Cllr McNamee rejected the claim, saying: "You must have been listening to a different conversation. I heard this was all bonfires on Council property." He also stated he agreed with Cllr Wilson's suggestion of community engagement.

"We were talking about 11th night bonfires the whole way through," said Cllr Wilson.

Ulster Unionist members Bob Mulligan and Mark Glasgow then stated their opposition to one of the Council's proposed recommendations, to set up an inter-agency bonfire group, saying it would be "moving too fast" and taking power away from the Council.

Cllr Brian McGuigan then accepted the suggestion to invite members of other agencies, including Police, the Fire Service and the NIEA as and when required.

And it was then agreed to engage with local communities and consider introducing an application and licencing process, meeting certain criteria, for building bonfires.

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