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Council Ignores Bonfire Advice

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

MID-ULSTER District Council is to press ahead with its bonfire licensing plan, ignoring repeated pleas from the emergency services, the Tyrone Courier understands.

Last Wednesday (23rd May) officials from the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) met with the elected representatives and Council officials who make up the bonfire working group to discuss the Council's proposed policy.

The Courier understands that at on at least three separate occasions within the meeting, a senior Police officer urged the Council to review its strategy fearing that it would lead to an increase in tensions.

However, the concern seems to have fallen on deaf ears with the nationalist-controlled Council keen to move forward with the proposed policy.

One person present at the meeting described how "a senior PSNI official told the Council and its Director of Public Health and Infrastructure, Mark Kelso to reconsider their approach at least three times but the working group did not seem to give this much thought."

The Council is set to publish a questionnaire on issues relating to bonfires next Monday (4th June).

Officials from all three agencies advised the working group that they enjoyed a good working relationship with bonfire builders across the district and were, at present, expecting a peaceful bonfire season.

Superintendent Mike Baird confirmed he attended the meeting, telling the Courier: "The Council's bonfire working group met and invited partner organisations to attend, which included PSNI.  The PSNI's aim is to have safety around bonfires in the Mid-Ulster area."

A spokesperson for the Fire Service also confirmed their presence at the meeting stating that the NIFRS briefed the group on its role at bonfires, which is based on the NIFRS Bonfire Management Framework.

"NIFRS' role in relation to bonfires is to offer safety advice and gather information on potential operational response," said the spokesperson. "NIFRS works closely with local communities and other statutory agencies to ensure people stay safe when building or attending bonfires."

However despite the repeated requests from the agencies to review the policy, Mid-Ulster District Council voted at its monthly meeting on Thursday night last to move ahead and issue the questionnaires, which will hit the doorsteps of the residents of Mid-Ulster from next week.

This decision concerned the UUP's group leader on Council Cllr Trevor Wilson, who sought to delay the release of the questionnaire by one month to allow time for the questions to be agreed upon by Council.

"The consultation is set to begin on 4th June, but who draws up the questionnaire? I have concerns that the wording of the questions can skew the results," he said.

"A questionnaire is only as good as the questions on it and the questions can skew the results significantly.

"On such a contentious issue I think it would be a good idea to let the Council see the questions first."

However, he was advised by the Chief Executive, Anthony Tohill, that in line with Council policy, the wording of the questionnaire would be drawn up by Council officials unless Council decided otherwise.

The UUP's Cllr Walter Cuddy spoke in support Cllr Wilson's motion expressing his concerns about the decision to press ahead with the matter.

"I was at the bonfire meeting on Wednesday night and heard how the PSNI and the Fire Service feel they have good links with the bonfire builders," he said. "We have a good team of officers here more than capable of developing similar relations, but the policy is moving ahead at such a pace that is impossible for our staff to develop these relations.

"I just hope the Council sees some sense. If not we could be in a very difficult situation."

The DUP's Cllr Clement Cuthbertson was also critical of the inability of Council to task officials to build good relations with bonfire groups.

"I am dismayed that a Council officer wasn't tasked with working with community groups right at the very start of this and it is clear that this is just being pushed through," he said.

However, Sinn Fein Cllr Sean McGuigan advised that Council policy had been followed and, as such, the process should continue as planned.

"We have worked hard as a group to develop this policy and have agreed the time frame within the group," he said. "We have agreed the time frame and there is time for the parties to respond. From 4th June we have 13 weeks including holidays. This motion is nothing but a stalling practice, correct procedure has been followed all the way through."

His comments were supported by Sinn Fein Cllr Ronan McGinley who stated that the Chief Executive's words had inspired confidence in him that the motion should continue as planned.

"The Chief Executive's earlier comments have clarified this situation for me and I think we are in a position to move forward as previously agreed," he said.

When the proposal to defer the publication of a questionnaire for one month was put to a vote it was defeated by the nationalist dominated council.

"What a surprise," declared Cllr Wilson as the Council's Chair, Cllr Kim Ashton, declared his proposal had failed.

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