Belfast Telegraph

SDLP's Durkan want agreed plan for bonfires amid fears councils lack will to tackle scourge

By Noel McAdam

Plans to tackle the threat posed to public safety by bonfires are in danger of going up in smoke.

That's because local councils are opposing proposals from a former Stormont minister for a licensing scheme.

But ex-Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said he hopes a working group can still revive the idea.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which has some enforcement powers, is involved in ongoing discussions but there is no sign of any progress.

Controversy over bonfires raged for weeks in the lead-up to the Eleventh Night this year with no agreement on protocols.

In the event, two terraced houses off the Shankill Road in Belfast were destroyed after hot embers from a bonfire landed on their roofs.

A 72-year-old woman and her two-year-old great-granddaughter were forced to flee as firefighters tackled the blaze.

That night the fire service also attended incidents linked to bonfires in Bangor, Coleraine, Banbridge, Rathfriland, Dungannon, Londonderry, Portadown, Ballyhalbert and Limavady.

Of a total of 123 calls between 9pm and 1am, 42 were said to be bonfire-related. In east Belfast a children's playground was temporarily removed to accommodate a bonfire, while another location had racist graffiti daubed on a pallet.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEARA), which replaced Mr Durkan's department, said talks on a multi-agency approach are continuing.

"As part of its ongoing efforts, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is continuing to engage and work with relevant stakeholders as part of a council-led multi-agency approach on bonfires", a statement said.

But DEARA, headed by DUP Minister Michelle McIlveen, was unable to say what, if any, progress is being made.

Mr Durkan said: "At the end of the day I believe councils are going to have to take the lead on this and while some councils have had some success there is still sadly a lot to be done."

As minister, the SDLP man proposed a licensing scheme among a range of proposals put out to consultation last November.

"Some of the councils poured cold water on that. They were saying it put too much responsibility on to them. Their preference was for more of a hybrid with what they are already doing on the ground," the Foyle MLA added.

"They were really saying we want to keep doing what we are doing, but we will do it better."

Alliance councillor Michael Long said: "No sane person would explain this as culture. It is clear things need to change and we need to start discussing next year's bonfires now.

"The buck-passing between various authorities does nothing but prolong the problems surrounding this issue and it needs to stop now before yet more families are made homeless due to some excuse for culture."

Belfast City Council has said that around 52 communities were involved last year in a "process" of better bonfire management, resulting in reduced call-outs to the emergency services.

But the former DoE consultation document said while the number of fires has reduced, "there are still a large number of bonfires which are not properly managed, damage property and give rise to anti-social behaviour. In addition, on many bonfires, materials such as tyres and treated pallets are burnt which pose a potential risk to human health and have a detrimental impact on environment".

Belfast Telegraph


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