Belfast Telegraph

SF-led council 'rejected bonfire advice from emergency services'

By Staff Reporter

A council ignored pleas from the emergency services over a proposed bonfire licensing plan, it has been reported.

Councillors on Mid Ulster District Council's bonfire working group have been considering terms for a new policy.

Mid Ulster is set to be the first council in Northern Ireland to introduce what is expected to be a set of rules for bonfires.

It spent more than £17,500 clearing up eight bonfire sites on council land across the district last summer.

According to reports, at a meeting last Wednesday, officials from the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and the Environment Agency met with the councillors and officials who make up the bonfire working group to discuss the terms of the proposed policy.

The Tyrone Courier reported that on at least three separate occasions at the meeting, a senior police officer urged the council to review its strategy, fearing that it would lead to an increase in tensions.

Officials from all three agencies advised the working group that they enjoyed a good working relationship with bonfire builders across the district and that they were hopeful of a peaceful summer.

But the following night, a full meeting of the council voted to press ahead with the bonfire plan.

Ulster Unionist councillor Trevor Wilson urged his colleagues to delay and take time over the wording of a questionnaire set to be issued to ratepayers in the district.

"I have concerns that the wording of the questions can skew the results," he said.

"On such a contentious issue, I think it would be a good idea to let the council see the questions first."

However, the Tyrone Courier reported that he was told by council chief executive Anthony Tohill that, in line with council policy, the wording of the questionnaire would be drawn up by officials unless councillors decided otherwise.

The newspaper also reported that Sinn Fein councillor Sean McGuigan claimed council policy had been followed throughout.

"We have worked hard as a group to develop this policy and we have agreed the timeframe within the group," Mr McGuigan said.

"We have agreed the timeframe and there is time for the parties to respond. From June 4, we have 13 weeks, including holidays.

"The correct procedure has been followed all the way through."

The council will on Monday issue questionnaires for residents as part of a consultation over the scheme.

The proposed new policy over bonfires, if agreed, is not expected to be operational until July 2019.

In March, the council voted to back measures suggested by its bonfire working group, including the requirement for organisers to prove that fires being held on council land met conditions laid down by the authority.

These included having no hazardous or toxic materials collected, stored or burned, and having no flags, emblems or effigies burned.

However, Unionist councillors hit out at the decision, with DUP group leader Paul McLean claiming that it was "part of an orchestrated plan by Sinn Fein to stop Eleventh Night bonfires".

He said the issue would be better managed by working with local communities.

Mid Ulster DUP MLA Keith Buchanan described the proposal as a "heavy-handed approach to deal with bonfires when there are little or no problems in mid-Ulster".

He also accused Sinn Fein, which leads the council, of "flexing its muscles".

A council spokesman said: "The council's consultation on its draft bonfire management policy opens on June 4.

"We welcome the views of the local community, stakeholders and any other interested parties as part of that process."

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