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DUP minister lighting bonfire 'an offence' says Stormont official

The DUP's Paul Givan lighting an Eleventh Night bonfire last year as communities minister
Brendan Hughes

A SENIOR Stormont civil servant said that a DUP minister lighting a Twelfth bonfire was "an offence" in an email exchange with officials.

The startling remark about Paul Givan while he was still communities minister is revealed in emails newly uncovered by The Irish News.

Mr Givan faced criticism last July after being pictured setting stacks of pallets alight to mark the Eleventh Night in south Tyrone.

The DUP and DUP-led executive departments at the time refused to respond to repeated requests for a comment.

But newly released emails show how staff in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) discussed whether to respond.

The Irish News had asked the department to clarify the legality of lighting bonfires, and whether there was any complaint or investigation about Mr Givan.

The media query was discussed by David Small, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

He wrote to a colleague: "Any thoughts on this? Happy for [unnamed official] to push this towards the council, but The Irish News also raise queries about when it is illegal to light a bonfire. Do we have a line on this?"

His colleague responded: "In essence lighting the bonfire is an offence and we probably want to stick to the lines; Lead responsibility for bonfire management rests with local councils and within district council-led multi-agency initiatives, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) will concentrate on progressively reducing the number of tyres being burnt on bonfires.

"On reflection over the past few days in dealing with issues such as this, a meeting with the minister [DUP environment minister Michelle McIlveen] would be useful [to] clarify her position on bonfires."

The emails are revealed in freedom of information response. It was issued seven months after the request was made, in the weeks since civil servants took charge following the political collapse of the executive.

Names of some civil servants were redacted from the emails.

They also show that The Irish News's queries were sent to Andrew Crawford, then DUP special adviser to Ms McIlveen.

In response, Mr Crawford wrote: "This is a load of nonsense. I would ignore it rather than responding – don't bother referring him to council."

Mr Givan lit the pyre as he attended the opening of a new Orange lodge football pitch near Augher with then First Minister Arlene Foster.

The Department for Communities provided more than £323,000 towards the Roughan pitch facility. The Orange Order said the pyre did not involve any tyres or flags.

At the time Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd said Mr Givan "should be setting an example as a minister rather than posting pictures of himself setting fire to a bonfire".

The image also attracted controversy online, with some questioning the impact of bonfires on the environment.

The email correspondence emerges amid recent criticism of Mr Givan over his decision to scrap a Gaeltacht bursary and questions over his 'community halls' scheme.

Mr Givan sparked anger among Irish-language campaigners after he withdrew the £50,000 Líofa fund just before Christmas.

The late Martin McGuinness cited the cut among his reasons for resigning as deputy first minister.

Mr Givan later re-instated the bursary, saying that he did not want Sinn Féin to use it as a "political weapon".

In January the former communities minister also defended his 'community halls' fund after its cost nearly quadrupled to £1.9m and it emerged that most successful applicants were from the unionist community.

Mr Givan insisted the initiative was "open to all and made no distinction based on the community identity of the organisation".

Asked about the Daera correspondence, the DUP did not respond to requests for a comment.

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