Unionists slam bonfire policy as ‘heavy-handed’

A bonfire ahead of the Twelfth
A bonfire ahead of the Twelfth

Controversial plans that could see bonfire organisers forced to pay for insurance have been labelled “utter nonsense” by a DUP councillor.

The nationalist-controlled Mid Ulster Council is seeking to impose a new bonfire management policy, which among other things, will require organisers to prove that bonfires held on council-owned land meet certain conditions.

The draft policy will go out for a 13-week public consultation starting in June, meaning the scheme will not impact this summer’s July 11 festivities.

Unionist councillors have branded the proposals an “attack on unionist culture” and accused the local authority of being “heavy handed” when it comes to bonfire management.

At the latest meeting of the council’s environment committee, it emerged that the new policy will include placing a responsibility on bonfire organisers to have their own public liability insurance.

DUP Councillor Paul McClean told the News Letter: “This is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“No insurance company in their right minds will give cover to any person or group for a bonfire. It is a load of utter nonsense and balderdash.”

The policy means that a bonfire will only be considered on council land where the organiser “can demonstrate the event and site will be managed safely and where certain conditions are met”.

This includes a ban on the burning of potentially toxic material including tyres, as well as a ban on placing flags and effigies on bonfires.

The council may also require organisers to produce a risk assessment and event safety plan, as well as evidence of consultation with relevant authorities such as police, fire service and ambulance.

Councillor Trevor Wilson, the Ulster Unionist Party’s group leader on the council, said the policy was an “attempt to erode unionist culture”.

He added: “This is just a blatant attempt by the council to make life as difficult as possible for bonfire builders.

“I believe Mid Ulster Council is going overboard to deal with an issue which could be dealt with by mediation, as we have previously suggested.

“No one wants to see tyres and toxic materials burned, and the best way to go about preventing that is to work with people on the ground, rather than having unionists dictated to by a nationalist-controlled council.”

Mr Wilson said there are two “contentious” bonfire sites within the Mid Ulster area, but added that progress had been made behind the scenes with the organisers of these events.

He added: “I believe the work that was taking place with these groups was succeeding. But Sinn Fein and the SDLP want to rule with a heavy hand and it is going to set things back.

“It is actually creating divisions and made the situation worse rather than better.

“This is an attack on unionist culture. Everywhere you look in Mid Ulster, street signs are being changed to incorporate dual language, and while no one should be afraid of a language, when it is being used for political means then that is a different ball game entirely.”

Last month, the eight DUP members of the council mounted a legal challenge over the decision to implement a licensing system for bonfires – thought to be the first of its kind in Northern Ireland.

However, the challenge was ruled out by a senior lawyer.

The draft policy will now go before full council for approval before being put out for a 13-week consultation on June 4.