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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Sinn Fein plan for Belfast bonfires fails, while Alliance proposal carried
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A Sinn Fein plan to regulate bonfires on Belfast council land has failed, while an Alliance counter proposal has gained support at the local authority.

At the full monthly meeting of Belfast City Council on Monday (October 4th), the chamber rejected the Sinn Fein plan in favour of an Alliance amendment which delayed any council regulation pending the publication of the Stormont report by the Commission for Flags Identity Culture and Tradition (FICT).

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The council also agreed to conduct an immediate internal council review of the 2021 bonfire season, to be “completed in time for the committee meeting in November, to include elected representatives, statutory agencies and bonfire builders in order to highlight issues which will need to be addressed.”

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The proposal adds the council will ask Stormont for an “action plan” based on the FICT report. The report, commissioned in 2016, was returned last year to the Executive, and has cost £800,000 to date. It remains unpublished despite the assembly voting for it to go public in July.

The original Sinn Fein Belfast council motion would have meant all bonfires on council land would have to go through a rigorous application process similar to other events in council parks, involving risk assessment, public liability insurance cover, and event management plans. It passed committee level last month, but was set to face a tougher task when faced with a full council vote.

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Councillor Nuala McAllister forwarded the Alliance proposal as an amendment, which passed with 33 votes supported by her party, the three unionist parties, and the Green Party. There were 26 votes against, from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and People Before Profit.

Councillor McAllister said: “Of course we should be regulating bonfires to make them safe insofar as possible. We need to do it in a way that is realistic, a way that is workable, and a way that is not just about politicking.”

She added: “We want to see a situation where we can handle problem bonfires in a constructive way, that will actually see them ceasing to exist. What I see next year, if the (Sinn Fein) motion was to be passed, is not fewer problem bonfires, but more.”

PUP Councillor John Kyle said: “There has been steady progress over the past decade in this whole area. There are fewer but better managed bonfires, we have eliminated tyres almost completely, and there are less toxic materials.

“There is less anti-social behaviour, less flytipping, less on-street drinking, fewer calls out to the emergency services, and the PSNI report fewer incidents.

“There has been an increased use of beacons, an increase in community involvement, an increased element of education associated with the events, and fewer posters, emblems and flags. There has been reduced air pollution and reduced cleanup costs.

“So in fact what we have here is a real and significant success story on the part of the council. Where bonfires were causing a risk to property or life, the council has intervened, material has been removed, with the support of residents, community organisations and elected representatives, most recently demonstrated this July past.”

He added: “It is a further attempt by Sinn Fein to suppress and undermine culture. There can be no other explanation for that, it is an attempt to strangle the tradition by layers of bureaucracy. It is a provocative policy, and will reinforce the views of many that Sinn Fein want to eradicate unionist and loyalist culture. It is likely to provoke a reaction from some, making things worse.”

DUP Alderman Brian Kingston: “The proposal brought forward by Sinn Fein gives the appearance of a party that is not connected at community level, that is not grounded in realities. It gives the appearance of a party that sits away in an office somewhere and imagines how things should be, and has a lack of reality.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Ciaran Beattie said: “There is no fence for us to sit on tonight. The decision for all members of this council is clear. You either stand on the side of the law-abiding citizens of this city, or you stand on the side of those who break the law by burning toxic bonfires in our parks.

“You either stand beside those who rightly are concerned about the environment or you stand on the side of those who burn toxic waste in our parks. You stand on the side of those whose homes are boarded up in July, who have to be evacuated from their homes, who have to have their homes hosed down, or you stand on the side of those who build illegal bonfires. That is the clear choice we have in front of us tonight.”

He said the Alliance motion was “cowardice” and was “not facing the issue,” and added “I don’t think anyone will take the Green party seriously after tonight.”

He said: “This will happen, whether it goes through tonight or not. This is the direction of travel that we are all on, it is something we are going to have to face down the line. The Alliance says they support regulation, so when are they actually going to support it?”

Green Party Councillor Mal O’Hara said: “Some of the unionist councillors here have shown real leadership within their own communities, they received threats and been called all sorts, because of the work they have done to bring communities with them towards more positive expressions of culture.”

He added: “We are concerned the original Sinn Fein motion will be viewed as a diktat by some communities in our city. It runs the risk of undoing the hard work of building relationships and supporting communities to change.”

He said: “As usual, when things get held up or blocked at Stormont, Belfast City Council becomes an alternative battleground for proxy culture wars.”

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