Bonfire bid is rejected

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A DUP challenge to Mid-Ulster Council's new bonfire licensing policy "does not have merit" although it indicates a "general direction of travel" on the Council's behalf, according to legal opinion sought by the public authority.

The eight DUP members of the body formally lodged an appeal to the decision to introduce stricter controls on bonfires on Council owned property.

They claimed "the decision was not arrived at after a proper consideration of the relevant facts and issues" and said the move would have a "direct discriminatory impact on Protestants".

It was stated that the new policy was seeking to address sites where problems occurred previously, with particular focus given to those at Killymerron in Dungannon and Killymoon in Cookstown.

However, Tony McGleenan QC found that exploring "a means of ensuring safer bonfires" was a "legitimate aim for a public authority to pursue".

He also said in relation to the DUP claim of an adverse impact on Protestants that, "while there are likely to be effects from such a policy it is difficult, if not impossible, to foresee with any degree of specificity what those effects might be.

"Further, predictions about whether those effects might be positive or adverse is likely to be an exercise in pure speculation."

He further said that the fact that only two of eight bonfires in the area on Council-owned property have been identified as having "generated risk concerns", means bonfires "can and are being hosted... in a manner which does not generate high level risk concerns".

In his findings, it was conceded there would be a "more controlled environment" but said anyone looking to be less restricted could find private property for a bonfire instead.

"It is probable that an increase in regulation will result in a more controlled environment for this form of cultural expression," he said.

"However, this is not necessarily an adverse outcome for the inhabitants of the Council and those who wish to erect bonfires in an environment with a lesser degree of regulation can elect to do on private lands, having obtained the necessary consents and permissions."

Tony McGleenan QC also stated the absence of DUP members from the Council's Bonfire Working Group did not "negate the propriety of the process".

He said their "rationale" for not attending "has not been explained and I express no view on whether it was a well-founded position... to adopt", but that "a section of the electorate were not represented at key meetings on this contentious topic does, however, give cause for concern.

"That concern is mitigated to an extent by the fact that... they did engage actively and vigorously in the debates on this issue before the parent Committee and before the Council."

And he said that because the moves made thus far by Mid-Ulster Council are considered "policy development rather than the adoption of a policy itself", there was no need as yet, as claimed by the DUP members, for an Equality Impact Assessment, a financial appraisal or public consultation.

And he concluded by saying that "while it is possible to ascertain a general direction of travel towards a greater degree of regulation of bonfires hosted on Council lands it is not possible, in my view, to identify the type of disproportionate and adverse affect" alleged by those bringing the call-in.

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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