'Fears of more bonfires being built next year due to anger' over Belfast Council motion, says Jim Rodgers
Concerns have been raised of an increase in the number of bonfires next year, following a new measure to allow staff or private contractors to tackle dangerous sites, UUP councillor Jim Rodgers has said.
A Sinn Fein motion was passed at Belfast City Council on Wednesday night by 31 votes to 21 after the republican party said a small number of fires were built dangerously close to homes or businesses and the poisonous gases produced were affecting the health of those who lived nearby.
A last-minute amendment to the motion saw a clause inserted that meant it only applied to those fires which posed a threat to life or property.
The council is currently reviewing its bonfire policies after it stored pallets for an east Belfast pyre which were subsequently stolen.
Unionists argued Wednesday night's meeting was unnecessary and premature given the review.
But Sinn Fein representatives argued there was no war on loyalist or unionist culture, and they were only putting the interests of all the people of Belfast first.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday Jim Rodgers said: "People had been saying to me if this was to come in, where we have worked with other groups in a particular area to have just one bonfire, they will have to consider should we not go back to having our own smaller one.
"This is the fear of many people within the unionist, Protestant and loyalist community, that because of the anger following that motion going through because people still feel, despite what Jim McVeigh said, it's to do with all bonfires.
"So instead of us getting the numbers reduced, presently there are about sixty bonfires in Belfast, thirty of them are on the council's bonfire programme, but 10 years ago there was over a hundred and the worry is you could see another five or six or more coming into being again because it has enraged people.
"That's the warning that we are sending out because it has annoyed a sizeable number of people in the loyalist community over the decision, they are totally convinced that Sinn Fein have an ulterior motive."
Mr Rodgers said the measure was "not enforceable.
"You just cannot instruct council officers and staff to go on and move material from a site that is not owned by the council. And that is why it is unenforceable. We have a duty of care to every single employee of Belfast City Council and you cannot expect them and to talk about them doing it is nonsense, because they wouldn't be doing it.
"It is a fact that officers have told us that over 70 contractors in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland, refused categorically to go on any of the sites to remove materials."
Speaking on the BBC Stephen Nolan show Sinn Fein's Jim McVeigh was adamant that contractors would do the work and disputed Mr Rodgers' figures and he wouldn't be "accepting it".
He said: "The contractors that we employ to do this work [will enforce it]."
When asked Belfast City Council said it "does not discuss matters relating to the issues of contracts".
Before the Eleventh Night, Belfast City Council attained a court order banning loyalists from stacking up more wood for the fires - an order that subsequently appeared to be broken.
This was met with a wall of silence from unionists - and when asked about it by the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Rodgers said they were "respecting" the "private meeting".
"The reason is simple. The meeting that was held to discuss bonfires in east Belfast was a confidential meeting so no-one should have gone out and spoken to the press or media or anyone else.
"The UUP, DUP and PUP all categorically, we weren't in collusion or contact with either, we all stood by the decision of that meeting which was agreed at beginning and the end that nothing is to be made public following our discussions today."
Sinn Fein's council leader Jim McVeigh said there was a paranoia about the intentions of republicans.
"This is about standing up to hate, it is about standing up to sectarianism, it is about standing against racism, against homophobia, against transphobia," he said.
"This is not about all bonfires. We are opposed to bonfires which cause damage to homes and public amenities, and which have been used to promote hate crime.
"Time and again the law is being broken and flouted at rogue bonfires and lives, property and the environment put at risk.
"The council has a duty to act and deal with these unacceptable bonfires and public displays of hate.
"People should be able to celebrate their culture without offending anyone.
"We have to work together and respect each other."
The annual arguments over bonfires continued unabated this summer after windows in a high-rise building in Belfast city centre shattered and other scorch damage was sustained
Firefighters spent the night dousing the tower on Wellwood Street with water in an effort to prevent it catching fire.
A son of the late Martin McGuinness called for an end to "displays of hate" after a coffin bearing a picture of his father was placed on one bonfire in Belfast.