Unionists have announced they will be withdrawing from a cross-party working group established earlier this year to review bonfires in Londonderry.
It follows a decision by council’s Health and Community Committee to back a new policy that will mandate the removal of bonfires if they are dirty, unsafe or lacking in community support
Unionists cite anxiety over the adoption of a “hard and fast” policy without first realising “community buy-in”.
Nationalists backed the policy and an accompanying action plan that will involve close community engagement and will allow council to get rid of bonfires if organisers do not adhere to proposed new protocols that will be developed in relation to the burning of materials, emblems and flags, and the safe management of infernos.
Sinn Féin’s Kevin Campbell noted that since the amalgamation of the old legacy councils there has been a vacuum in terms of bonfire policy.
“We’ve been missing this,” said Mr Campbell. “This work is now done.”
Proposing the adoption of the policy, Mr Campbell said its success would be built on community engagement, including with bonfire builders, and on co-operation with other statutory authorities.
SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney, not a committee member but a member of the bonfire working group, agreed: “The policy and plan can only be achieved through a partnership approach between the council and the communities, which we represent.”
He said it was not a “one size fits all” policy or an “attempt to prevent anyone expressing their culture”.
Councillor Tierney, however, later expressed disappointment after Drew Thompson of the DUP and Derek Hussey of the UUP said they couldn’t support the policy without first going out to the communities they represented and securing their support.
Alderman Thompson also expressed concern that the potential non-cooperation of bonfire builders could create a “serious problem” and health and safety risks for those tasked with removing material.
He said he could only support the policy as a draft and not as a “hard and fast” binding document.
Mr Tierney said: “I have to say I’m disappointed to hear some of the comments from unionist representatives.”
He added: “I am anti-bonfire. I don’t believe we need bonfires in our communities.”
Independent Gary Donnelly, who is not a member of the committee but sat on the working group, said the policy had to be welcomed.
“You only have to look at what happened in the Bogside this year, which was a disastrous result and that came about as a result of a lack of consultation.
“I look forward to the day when we don’t have a need for bonfires.”
Towards the end of open business and after nationalist members had backed the policy, Alderman Hussey announced: “It’s with extreme regret that the UUP are withdrawing from the bonfire working group.”
Alderman Hussey said he and his party would continue to engage with local communities but couldn’t accept the policy at this stage.
DUP Alderman Graham Warke followed suit stating: “The DUP will be pulling out for the same reason.”