Belfast Telegraph

Belfast council bonfire management 'eroding British culture' - Councillor fears this year could be worse than last

By Jonathan Bell

Belfast bonfire builders have branded the council's programme to encourage safety and community inclusively as having "ludicrous demands" accusing it of working to "erode British culture" and restrict unionist expression.

And one Belfast councillor has said he fears problems with bonfires across the city could be worse this year than last.

The council's Bonfire and Cultural Expression programme restricts the time material can be collected, says no hazardous materials or tyres can be burned or any election material, flags or emblems which could cause offence or be classed as a hate crime and that the pyres can have no paramilitary trappings.

It also says the bonfire should be build in clear open spaces where it is safe and comply with health and safety, events management guides and meet relevant legislation and insurance requirements.

The council says the programme should support creative forms of expression, provide training and support and encourage safe forms of cultural expression.

In return groups are awarded an initial £1,250 and if they comply with the requirements, they receive another award of £500.

A number of groups have said they have pulled out of the scheme because of the restrictions and said there has been a build up of "mistrust" between the themselves and council officials, the BBC reported.

One example given was the restriction on flags on or near a bonfire site, with some saying this included Union flags or others loyalist flags. There was also a concern other people in an area not associated with bonfires could harm a group's participation in the scheme.

An Alliance councillor, however, said groups pulling out of a scheme only deprived a community of family fun events.

Belfast city councillor Jim Rodgers said he could understand the bonfire builders objections to the schemes but feared an escalation in problems at sites.

He told the BBC: "We need to work with the community on this. It is worrying there is more bonfire groups out of the scheme than on it and that needs to be addressed.

"It is probably too late this year and that is because of the council report on the Bonfires from last year - that should have been done in six or eight weeks, not the six months it took. I was hammering on about this for months.

"My fear is there will be more bonfires causing problems this year than last".

Annually there are around 80 bonfires in Belfast. Last year there were controversies at two locations in east Belfast and the council was found to be storing thousands of pallets for one. They were later stolen. And at a site close to the Sandy Row area in south Belfast a bonfire damaged an apartment block. Firefighters had to be stationed on its roof to douse it with water such was the proximity of the fire.

Alliance councillor Michael Long said bonfire builders needed to work with the council to encourage self-regulation.

"But they are all still subject to regulations. If there is potential damage to life or property or the environment then the statutory bodies have a duty to act," he said.

"By pulling out of the bonfire scheme all they are doing is just depriving communities of funding for community events.

"Everyone in the council is absolutely clear cultural expression through bonfires is an important part of unionist culture and there is no desire to see that change. But we want that done in positive and safe way."

He added: "We want to see if this year we can address the issues so rather than this year being negative those groups can show they can act in a safe and responsible way and in way move things forward.

"There is always those that agitate and will be negative but the vast majority are responsible people who want to see positive celebrations within the community. We want to work with bonfire builders to build trust."

In the past year the former Northern Ireland Ombudsman investigated Belfast City Council's handling of Eleventh Night bonfires and specifically its decision to store around 3,000 pallets for bonfire builders. He said there were already laws in place to deal with issues around sites but said illegality around the bonfires was "ignored".

Asked for a response, Belfast City Council said in a statement: "Council is currently accepting applications for its Bonfire and Cultural Expression programme for 2018.

"This was agreed at a special meeting of the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee on 27 March and ratified by full council on 9 April. Applications for the programme are encouraged from a wide range of groups across the city. The deadline for applications is 11 May.”

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