Wednesday, 28 March 2018

MID-ULSTER Council has formally approved the introduction of a licensing scheme for bonfires on its property.

The controversial plans will see bonfires on Council property requiring specific permission from the Council, with named organisers required for any bonfire, while the Council will move in on any bonfire to remove any material it sees fit, or refuse permission for a bonfire to be built.

The Courier exclusively revealed last August that bonfire licences were on the cards in Mid-Ulster and last week exclusively revealed the plans were to get the green light.

Mid-Ulster Council has made the move despite the Courier's exclusive report last month that bonfire builders in Killymerron, Dungannon had written a letter to all residents stressing the various measures they would take to ensure minimal disruption and annoyance to any residents adversely affected by the bonfire.

The matter provoked a lively debate at the nationalist-controlled Council's monthly meeting, with unionists calling it an attack on their culture while nationalists said such moves were necessary to ensure safety at bonfire events.

It was claimed by the DUP's Clement Cuthbertson that Sinn Fein were acting in a "heavy handed" manner to "win back support" in areas of Dungannon and Coalisland of which Sinn Fein has "lost the run of to dissidents".

However, the SDLP's Malachy Quinn said he "didn't understand why anyone would be opposed to it other than to stoke up hatred".

Sinn Fein's Brian McGuigan said it was "not about attacking culture, it's about having the proper strategy in place going forward ".

The DUP's Paul McLean claimed Sinn Fein were guilty of hypocrisy as "this is the party that blew and blasted and killed and maimed" and told them to "go away and put your own house in order and apologise to the maimed and then talk about a bit of smoke from a bonfire".

The primary focus of the licensing format is in relation to bonfires at Killymerron in Dungannon and Killymoon in Cookstown.

Mid-Ulster Council's Environment Committee had already agreed its proposals for bonfire licensing and the matter had been brought to the full Council meeting for formal approval.

Sinn Fein's Brian McGuigan, moved to propose the minutes of that meeting but, before they could be formally approved, the DUP's Clement Cuthbertson interjected.

"We need to help bonfire builders rather than jumping in heavy handed and undoing the good work going on right across the district," he said/ Cllr Cuthbertson proposed a community based approach, whereby the Council follows the approach taken by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

Seconding the motion, Cllr McLean said: "What we are seeing here is a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut.

There is maybe two bonfires they have issues with and this is coming down with heavy handedness as a ploy by this Council to erode and erode our culture.

"When we have had statements in the past week about sectarianism, I will watch with interest the events over the next few days over Easter and put that in comparison to two bonfires that have only recently caused concern.

"We have been engaging with the bonfires and we have done the same in the past and got a favourable outcome. This speaks volumes of where people are coming from and I think there needs to be a sensible approach."

The UUP had opted for a different approach to the DUP on bonfires, citing a different possible option to the DUP.

This would have included a "Council commitment" to only consider a bonfire event when "the event organiser demonstrates that the event / site will be managed safely" and also that conditions in relation to the type of materials being burned, public safety and Council conditions in relations to emblems and flags would be met, in accordance with their Good Relations guidelines.

It is also stated the Council will remove bonfire materials if they are on Council land and "local communities / residents are not in support of a bonfire taking place" or "organisers are not adhering to safety / environmental requirements".

The UUP's Councillor Mark Glasgow said that option was "the most beneficial to the community". He said in relation to the other option advocated by Sinn Fein that "at no time to date have I ever or will I ever support it.

Speculation we will support [this option] is untrue." Sinn Fein's Brian McGuigan said: "Tonight, I proposed the recommendation that was taken at the Environment Committee.

"I also recommend that we are proactive on the high risk sites and those are the ones I highlighted at Killymoon in Cookstown and Killymerron in Dungannon.

"We are talking about Council sites here and not any other. There are serious risks to this Council.

"There was a working group for all parties and the DUP chose to boycott it.

Never did they send any representation to that. There's a problem with the threat to homes and they are left in a position where they have nowhere to turn.

"We are not just targeting the bonfires in the run up to the 12th of July. There's bonfires in the run-up to Hallowe'en as well.

"Some protocols have to be put in place.

There needs to be someone there the Council can contact regarding liability.

This is not about attacking culture, it's about having the proper strategy in place going forward." Sinn Fein's Joe O'Neill seconded the proposal of Cllr McGuigan and said: "This working group has done tremendous work and it's just a pity the DUP didn't get involved."

He referred to the letter seen exclusively by the Courier last month regarding the measures Killymerron Bonfire Group would take to address residents' concerns, which included a pledge to fit boards on people's windows to protect them from the heat of the bonfire, and said it was "ridiculous".

Supporting Sinn Fein's stance was Malachy Quinn of the SDLP, who said: "Plenty of people are saying 'this is eroding our culture'. I don't understand why anyone would be opposed to it other than to stoke up hatred".

The UUP's Walter Cuddy was next to speak and said: "I felt that the working group was very constructive. We brought in outside organisations to see how we can improve."

Referring to the various options put before Council as to how to proceed, he rejected the DUP's suggestion and aspects of the one supported by Sinn Fein.

"We have to look after all sections of the community in Mid-Ulster. The option we are proposing is the closest. It might take a lot of funding to get us over the line and if other parties are keen to resolve this issue then this is what we have to do.

"We don't want to force anyone to do anything but we do need to make bonfires safer. We have several families looking down on the bonfire from their house every year so we have to make sure we accommodate them..

"I'm disappointed this is being forced on us. Each bonfire is different." Cllr Cuthbertson spoke again on the issue of the Bonfire Working Group, saying he felt the discussions should have been held through existing Council committees.

He further said: "I'll not be taking any lectures from any party that will be tramping the streets next weekend glorifying terrorism. This heavy-handedness is because Sinn Fein has lost the run of areas to dissidents and they are acting heavy handedly to try to win back that support.

The UUP's Trevor Wilson agreed with Cllr McLean's comment that the Council was "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut".

He said: "They all talk about consensus politics but it's being thrown out the window and the views of unionists are being run roughshod over. Unionists will see this as another attack on their culture.

"Has consideration been given to the Council staff who will have to implement that diktat? Continued engagement is the only way forward.

"We believe the best way is to work with the local community and not by Sinn Fein and the SDLP dictating terms to us.

"If we go down this line it won't resolve the issue we all want to address and I see this as an excuse by both parties to tell unionists, 'we are the boss'." Cllr McLean spoke again, saying he felt there was no point in talking part in the bonfire working group as he felt unionists wouldn't be listened to.

"We need to deal with the facts. Not once in the bonfire working group noted did Hallowe'en bonfires get mentioned." Cllr McLean further claimed that Hallowe'en bonfires were being mentioned as a "smokescreen" to cover a "sectarian" motivation .

"This is the party that blew and blasted and killed and maimed and they are worried about a wee bit of smoke from a bonfire ?

"Go away and get your house in order and apologise to the maimed and those blown to bits and then talk about a bit of smoke from a bonfire".

The various suggestions were then put to a vote, with the UUP proposal voted for only by the UUP members, with the DUP and nationalists against. The DUP suggestion was voted for only by the DUP members, with the UUP abstaining and nationalists against.

Sinn Fein's proposal to proceed with bonfire licensing was voted for by all 20 nationalists present, with all 12 unionists present against, meaning Sinn Fen's proposal was carried.


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