Party voting against bonfire motion another example of ‘safe politics’
There was an inevitability about the defeat of the recent motion to regulate bonfires sited on Belfast City Council property, whenever the Alliance Party indicated that they would vote against the Sinn Fein proposed motion at the monthly council meeting.
The motion was ultimately defeated, being supported by only the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Without the 10 Alliance members’ support, the motion was doomed to failure, as the unionist parties on the council were adamantly opposed to regulation of any type being applied to traditional bonfires.
There are arguments against the merits of this motion on the grounds that it was unenforceable, and not very practical, because it demanded risk assessment by the fire service and the PSNI.
It further required public liability insurance and mandatory consultation with residents living nearby the proposed bonfire.
Additionally, the proposal included that permission for the bonfire should be sought by “a constituted organisation”.
Given the random manner in which these bonfires are traditionally built, this might be a step too far.
However, the real point of the motion was to establish the principle of regulation surrounding the siting, construction and management of these hazardous pyres. The detail of such regulations should probably have been a matter for further exploration, discussion and decision making.
Not surprisingly, the unionist parties collectively are too fearful of any curtailment of bonfires that might incur the wrath of their loyalist support base. The DUP want self-regulation and consultation with the bonfire builders themselves.
The problem with self-regulation is that there is little likelihood of any sort of actual regulation taking place in practice. It is in effect a cop-out by the DUP.
So instead of adopting the Sinn Fein proposal for regulation, the council — by a majority vote of 33 to 26 — backed an Alliance Party amendment to have the council “conduct an immediate review of the 2021 bonfire season”.
It also required the City Council to write to the Stormont Executive office asking for a long-delayed report on flags, identity, culture and tradition to be published.
The Executive Office will be shaking in their boots when they receive such a menacing demand from Belfast City Council.
Councillor Michael Long of the Alliance Party implausibly explained: “We want to get a more informed position. We need to get the data from 2021, we need to speak to all the statutory agencies, we need to speak to bonfire builders, we need to speak to those in communities that have been affected.”
Councillor Ciaran Beattie of Sinn Fein rather pointedly said to the Council: “There is no fence to sit on tonight. The decision in front of us for all members of this council is clear. You either stand on the side of law-abiding citizens of our city or you stand on the side of those who break the law by burning toxic bonfires in our parks.”
While he was directly addressing the loyalist bonfire builders, he could equally have addressed his remarks to the Alliance Party, for their opposition to his regulatory motion on bonfires and their sitting on the fence politically by putting forward an anodyne amendment that achieved nothing substantial, except a delay to any serious attempt by the council to tackle this pressing issue before the bonfire season commences next year.
As Councillor Beattie rightly remarked, the Alliance motion was “kicking the issue down the lane”.
The “do nothing” motion by Alliance might be safe politics, but it is a reminder of how the Alliance Party has failed to tackle issues that need practical attention.
The time to duck and dive on hard issues, such as bonfires, is long past.
If the opinion polls are to be believed, Alliance will soon be a much bigger player within the Assembly, and that being so, it is incumbent on them to make hard choices.
While the bonfire issue was temporally put to bed by Belfast City Council, it will without doubt re-emerge next year.
Those, like the DUP, who wish to uphold the status quo, should well heed the words of Mr Justice Horner.
He made it plain in his recent High Court judgement, explaining his decision last July, not to force the PSNI to help remove the contentious bonfire in Adam Street, that it is important to get community agreement in the future.
“The absence of any agreement as to clearly defined ground rules, for the construction and management of this bonfire on public land at this community interface, may leave the authorities with only one option, namely to prevent the construction of any bonfire at the outset.”
In the absence of any proper regulations being agreed by the council, the only alternative policy is a blanket ban on any bonfires on council property, at any time in the future.