Six months after unionists threatened to disengage completely from a cross-party working group established last year to review bonfires across Derry and Strabane, a new policy and action plan has been unanimously endorsed by the local Council’s Health and Community Committee.
Back in December unionist councillors had protested against the proposed adoption of a “hard and fast” bonfire policy without first realising “community buy-in”.
However, following the intervention of Community Relations Council Chair Peter Osborne, who in his role as director of Rubicon Consulting stepped in last month to make some amendments to the policy and plan, the council’s proposed bonfire position has now been unanimously approved by the committee.
Addressing the committee on behalf of her party colleague Brian Tierney, who sits on the bonfire working group but wasn’t present at its May meeting on Thursday, SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack said the policy would only work if there was “engagement with all stakeholders, which includes bonfire builders”.
“The message coming out of this meeting and the adoption of this policy today should be a positive one, not one where one community feels this is an attack on their identity,” she said.
“That’s not what this is about. This policy is about reducing the number of bonfires on council land in our council area. That, we need to be clear about.”
DUP Alderman Drew Thompson suggested the adoption of the policy would demonstrate the city leading the way once again in terms of its pioneering approach to contentious issues such as parades.
He said: “We’ve said that this city has been first in many things, when you look at parades, and maybe this is another step in the right direction. We can give the lead to other parts of the province.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Kevin Campbell said: “We need to start somewhere. Bonfires aren’t going to stop overnight but the Great Wall of China wasn’t built in a day. They had to start somewhere.”
Colr. Campbell said proper engagement with young people and bonfire builders was key to the policy’s success.
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Alderman Derek Hussey said he had initially been fearful an uncompromising anti-bonfire policy was what was being developed.
“We wanted to see the working out of a sensible methodology for dealing with bonfires and that is what we have in front of us,” he said.
Committee Chair, Ruairi McHugh said the decision to support the policy was testament to the positive engagement and hard work of officers and elected members to deal with this important issue.
“The Committee’s endorsement of this Plan sends a strong message that Council is committed to the development of an effective resolution to this issue, acknowledging the significance of bonfires in terms of community’s cultural identity and dealing proactively with public safety and the protection of the environment. This inclusive and collaborative approach will promote communication between the many statutory agencies and community representatives who deal with the issue on the ground, and how we can enhance community relations and benefit local people by working in close partnership,” he said.
The council’s Director of Health and Communities Council, Karen McFarland told members at the meeting that the policy would offer definitive guidance on the issues surrounding bonfires on Council lands.