Unionist legal challenge to Councilís new bonfire policy

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

MID-ULSTER District Council is to face a legal challenge to its decision to introduce a licensing system for bonfires.

The DUP's eight Councillors have collectively lodged a call-in procedure, which will see independent legal advice sought in relation to the legality of the move.

They say the move, which was supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and an independent republican had a "direct discriminatory impact on Protestants".

At March's full meeting of the nationalist-controlled Mid-Ulster District Council, elected members voted to enforce a licensing scheme on all bonfires on Council property, with particular emphasis being placed on 11th night bonfires in Killymerron, Dungannon and Killymoon, Cookstown.

Plans ratified by nationalist members of the Council will include "the production of an application procedure for use of Council facilities and open spaces for cultural celebrations".

Should minority groupings have serious misgivings over a decision made by the Council, a call-in procedure can be lodged and must be supported by 15 per cent of elected members. This equates to six members of the Council being able to launch a call-in procedure.

It is the first time Mid-Ulster Councillors have launched the call-in procedure in just under three three years, when unionists lodged a call-in twice in quick succession.

On those occasions, unionists challenged decisions taken by nationalists to ban the sale of poppies on Council premises, Irish first branding and the banning of the Union Flag on Council premises.

In their letter to the Council, the DUP members claim "the decision was not arrived at after a proper consideration of the relevant facts and issues".

This, they state, is in relation to the failure to carry out a public consultation or Equality Impact Assessment on the decision.

They also claim "that the decision would disproportionately affect adversely [a] section of the inhabitants of the district."

In their letter to Mid-Ulster Council Chief Executive Anthony Tohill, they say bonfires historically "have been associated to a greater extent with the Protestant or Unionist community" and this policy would have "a major impact on the celebrating of the Unionist / Protestant culture".

This, they say, has a "direct discriminatory impact on Protestants and Unionists".

It is further stated that the policy "singularly fails to grasp that these bonfires are an integral part of the Unionist / Protestant community's identity" and establishes a "pattern of harm to good relations"

They conclude by saying the "implementation of such a policy sends a clear, unambiguous and negative message to the Protestant and Unionist sections of Mid-Ulster".

Mid-Ulster Council's new bonfire policy include plans for 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".

A 'Strategic Action Plan' is to be drawn up by the Council to tackle bonfires over the next two to five years.

In addition to the plans to have licensing through an application process, the Council states it will "promote educational interventions to demonstrate the social and environmental impacts associated with bonfires and highlight the benefits and advantages of a more inclusive alternative celebration in support of Good Relations".

They will also "support communities in the positive celebration of their cultural heritage through managed events" such as fun days and beacons which, the Council says would be "open and inclusive".


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