Northern Ireland news

Number of bonfire groups in council funding schemes flatlines

A loyalist bonfire last year at Bloomfield Walkway in east Belfast
Brendan Hughes

THE number of bonfire groups signing up for council funding schemes has stagnated in recent years.

Five councils offer funds for related events if bonfires meet certain criteria, such as not burning tyres and avoiding paramilitary or offensive displays.

But while some local authorities have seen an increase in groups taking part, in others many have turned away from bonfire schemes.

This year 72 bonfire groups have so far signed up to council bonfire management programmes, according to figures compiled by The Irish News.

The figure is the same as last year, but a fall on the 80 groups in 2016 and 95 in 2015.

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In Belfast, the number of loyalist bonfire groups taking part has fallen for a third year running.

It comes amid several loyalist groups publicly refusing to take part, accusing the scheme of aiming to "control culture and tradition".

However, in Mid and East Antrim council, the number of bonfire groups involved more than doubled from five last year to 13 in 2018.

Bonfire builders across the north have started collecting pallets and other materials ahead of the Eleventh Night when hundreds of pyres are lit.

Belfast City Council's 'bonfire and cultural expression programme' offers funding of up to £1,750 for related community activities if bonfires meet conditions including not burning tyres and avoiding paramilitary or offensive displays.

There were 28 applications from groups linked to July bonfires this year – a year-on-year drop when compared to the 31 in 2017, 32 in 2016, and 44 in 2015.

Masked men building a bonfire last year at Inverary Playing Fields in east Belfast

This year, the DUP and Sinn Féin have faced accusations of "undermining" the council programme by handing out £400,000 to community groups through a separate 'festivals fund'.

Among the groups to receive funding is a UDA-linked organisation near a bonfire that last year caused damage to a city centre apartment block.

The DUP and Sinn Féin defended the funding, but rival parties branded it a political "carve up".

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition – a Stormont body set up in 2016 to address issues including bonfires – is due to complete its final report later this year.

But there has been discontent among the 15-member panel, with Sinn Féin and the UUP calling for its suspension in the absence of a Stormont executive.

SDLP councillor Tim Attwood. Picture by Ann McManus

SDLP councillor Tim Attwood, vice chair of the Shared City Partnership which oversees the bonfire management programme in Belfast, said council schemes can help to address safety and environmental concerns.

"It is unfortunate that the number of groups involved has dropped in some councils over the last the years but it is encouraging that a number of groups have chosen to take part," he said.

"This suggests a realisation by some groups that bonfire management schemes can ease some safety and environmental concerns.

"We cannot have a repeat of some of the situations that occurred in 2017.

"Therefore it is vital that statutory partners together with communities tackle dangerous bonfires which may put people's health, homes and property at risk and bonfire management schemes are one such way."

A Sinn Féin spokesman said: "The number of rogue bonfires has stagnated in recent years with many replaced by more positive community events and festivals therefore it isn't necessarily a concern if the number of schemes have reduced also.

"Of course every effort must be made to continue to oppose rogue bonfires where they present a threat to life, property, the environment or where they cause damage to public amenities or facilitate hate crime activities."

The Alliance Party encouraged bonfire groups join council management programmes.

"We want to see Eleventh Night bonfires carried out in a respectful and safe way, and to this end would encourage those behind bonfires locally to engage fully with the schemes available to them," a spokeswoman said.

"It is only through these processes that individual bonfires can be monitored for environmental and community safety protocols."

 

Councils' bonfire schemes, and the number of groups applying

 

Antrim and Newtownabbey

Bonfire management programme offers groups up to £2,700 for related family-fun events if bonfires meet conditions including no potentially hazardous material.

Groups should also "refrain" from erecting/displaying racist, sectarian or paramilitary paraphernalia on or in the vicinity of the bonfire site.

A total of 19 groups took part in 2015, 14 in 2016, 16 in 2017 and 17 this year.

Ards and North Down

Funding available of up to £2,300 available to bonfire groups for related events if pyres meet conditions including no toxic materials.

A total of 12 groups took part in 2015, 13 in 2016, 12 in 2017 and 11 have applied this year.

Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon

No bonfire management scheme.

Belfast

Offers bonfire groups up to £1,750 for related community activities if bonfires meet conditions including not burning tyres and avoiding paramilitary or offensive displays.

A total of 52 groups took part in 2015, 39 in 2016, 31 in 2017 and 28 have applied this year.

For loyalist bonfires, the numbers were 44 in 2015, 32 in 2016, 31 in 2017 and 28 this year.

In 2017, it was agreed that diversionary funding for August bonfires would be provided from another source.

Causeway Coast and Glens

No bonfire management scheme. The council said it runs a 'festivals fund', part-sponsored by Stormont's Department for Communities (DfC), for events that take place throughout the year.

Derry and Strabane

No bonfire management scheme.

Fermanagh and Omagh

No bonfire management scheme.

Lisburn and Castlereagh

No bonfire management scheme. The council said it runs a 'festivals fund' as part of a wider DfC programme.

Mid and East Antrim

Funding of up to £2,000 available for related community events if bonfires meet conditions including no tyres. Organisers should also "endeavour to discourage" sectarian or racist graffiti or the flying of flags or emblems or the burning of election posters at their bonfire site.

A total of 12 groups took part in 2015, seven in 2016, five in 2017 and 13 have applied this year.

Mid Ulster

A bonfire licensing scheme is being developed and consulted on.

Newry, Mourne and Down

Funding of up to £750 for diversionary activity if bonfires meet conditions including no tyres.

The police was adopted in 2015. There were seven applications in 2016, eight in 2017 and three this year so far.

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