Ex-Ombudsman critical of authorities for turning a blind eye to bonfire illegality
The legality of a number of bonfires across Northern Ireland could be challenged under current laws, former Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley reveals in his report.
Mr Frawley's assertion implicitly raises questions as to why the authorities don't take action regarding these bonfires.
In the three-page conclusion, he says: "Currently the legality of a number of bonfires could be challenged. We do not need new legislation to address these situations - the legislation is currently in place. Ironically, however, they are very rarely described or acknowledged as being illegal."
The former Ombudsman investigated Belfast City Council's handling of Eleventh Night bonfires last year and specifically its decision to store around 3,000 pallets for bonfire builders.
There are around 330 Eleventh Night bonfires across Northern Ireland, of which 75-80 are in Belfast, he states.
"One of the problems with the perception of bonfires is that they have taken place in a very permissive atmosphere, in the absence of any arrangements to properly risk assess and ensure the safety of the public, property and the environment," he adds.
"Behaviours that normally would be considered illegal are ignored, it starts with low level anti-social behaviour, a tolerance of which then creates the conditions for potentially more serious illegal activity."
Mr Frawley refers to the public perception that "a large number of bonfire sites involve some degree of paramilitary involvement, either directly or indirectly".
He stresses the important role many agencies have to play in responding to the bonfire problem including the PSNI, Housing Executive, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Fire Service.
"For too long the default position has been the council will deal with it," he adds.
"There is clearly an urgent need to review the operation, role and remit of the Inter-agency Group."
There is also implicit criticism of Northern Ireland's political parties for not stepping up to the mark and tackling the bonfire issue.
"There seems to be a continuing reluctance on the part of many agencies and political parties to engage proactively to achieve an agreed approach to bonfires," Mr Frawley says. "'It's a grey area' or 'multi-agency working' or 'we need to work with the community' are the usual soundbites on the issue.
"The reality is that a particular bonfire may breach the law, however, it is 'an expression of culture' which immediately places it with a number of other 'intractable' problems in the 'pending tray'. This is not a defensible or sustainable position."
Mr Frawley praises the council's bonfire management programme which includes around 40% of Belfast bonfires. He says the council has improved bonfires through the use of beacons instead, and the reduction in the burning of flags, effigies, tyres and other toxic materials.
However, social media means "more and more of the detail of the activities around bonfires" is seen, he states.
The "negative aspects" of bonfires become the focus leading to "the public perception that the problem is getting worse" when it has actually improved since masked UVF gunmen engaged in a paramilitary show of strength at the Pitt Park bonfire in east Belfast over a decade ago.
Mr Frawley wants space for a "rational and constructive discussion" between nationalism and unionism over bonfires. The challenge is to develop cultural celebrations and commemorative programmes that are fit for purpose without diluting the symbolism and meaning of these events for all communities," he adds.
Mr Frawley addresses the issue of regulating bonfires which is supported by Sinn Fein and would include accountability, enforcement and potential sanctions. "For that to happen, one person/community group has to take responsibility for the bonfire, and as we have seen with parades it is near impossible because then that individual or group is expected to manage the behaviour of all who attend the event," he states.