Sparks fly in debate over Mid Ulster bonfires as flags, rubbish and effigies banned

Sign at a bonfire site in Cookstown
Sign at a bonfire site in Cookstown

People who dump hazardous material at bonfire sites will face prosecution: that’s the warning from Mid Ulster Council after it passed a SDLP motion.

Councillors had vowed to tackle the illegal burning of tyres at bonfires, which creates toxic plumes of smoke, but a controversial Sinn Fein amendment, proposed by Councillor Cathal Mallaghan, widened the prohibition to include rubbish, flags, election posters and effigies of individuals.

Last year a number of nationalist symbols and election posters were burned on a bonfire in Cookstown.
The council called on statutory agencies, landowners, the PSNI and the Fire Service to work with it in outlawing the burning of hazardous waste at bonfires. It also warned that organisers should remove offensive material from bonfires.

Introducing the motion, Councillor Christine Flynn said that although there was a local tradition of celebrating with bonfires, and this should be supported, the burning of tyres was harmful to the environment and detrimental to people’s health, in particular, the young and old, and asthma sufferers.

“I call on community organisations to stop the burning of tyres, and I ask the police and fire service to take a lead role in preventing this happening”, she said.

However, controversy arose when Sinn Fein representative Cathal Mallaghan introduced his amendment to the chamber, which also called on the council not to clean up the remains of bonfires from non-council property.

It is illegal to burn tyres on bonfires

It is illegal to burn tyres on bonfires

“Sinn Fein aren’t opposed to bonfires. We want people to celebrate their culture but they should not show disrespect to others in doing so,” he said.

“We want bonfires to be done safely. respectfully and lawfully.”

However, his addition to the motion led to a fury of debate from Unionist councillors before it was finally passed by the majority nationalist vote.

UUP Councillor Trevor Wilson said his party supported the right of people to celebrate their culture, but did not support the burning of tyres.

“Many bonfires in the district are well-run and should be supported by the council. There is widespread concern that Sinn Fein are attacking unionist culture.

“I appeal to nationalist councillors not to use this as a stick to beat the Protestant population of Mid Ulster. Eleventh night bonfires are part of our culture and won’t go away.”

Council Chairperson responded by pointing out that the motion did not propose the stopping of bonfires, only the enforcement of law, which applied to all the citizens in the district.

UUP Councillor Walter Cuddy warned that the motion risked criminalising young people who build bonfires, and put at jeopardy the safety of council staff who might have to remove flags and material without the consensus of local groups.

“This will put us back to square one and cause more trouble”. he warned.

DUP representative Paul McLean added to criticism, accusing Sinn Fein of jumping on the SDLP bandwagon.

“I have concerns about the timing of this motion at the commencement of our marching season and the celebrations of our culture.”

Unionists were furious last year when a bonfire in Maghera was sabotaged.
Councillor Mallaghan complained that whereas all representatives were united in opposing the burning of tyres at bonfires, unionists were disagreeing with the motion because Sinn Fein had proposed the amendment

SDLP Councillor Tony Quinn said he was offended by the DUP criticism of the motion.

“This is not an anti-unionist or anti-British move. These suggestions do not help move us on the way to peace. The burning of tyres is harmful and unacceptable, and this motion is not an attack on anyone’s culture.

“We should be careful not to incite tensions.”