Northern Ireland news

Bonfires remain a "legal minefield" for local councils as one grapples with aftermath of man's death

John Steele died after falling from a bonfire in Larne, Co Antrim
John Breslin

Councils face a legal minefield over liability for bonfires, according to one leading expert.

New legislation specifically around bonfires will need to be considered if local authorities and wider society wants them as cultural events, said Jonny Byrne, a lecturer

Legislation is already on the books if enforcement is the route taken, including public order, environmental and other laws, said Mr Byrne, who has worked with Belfast City Council on bonfires and authored several reports.

But enforcement throws up other thorny issues around who would be tasked with carrying it out and how it could happen without the real threat of violence against council workers or contractors.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has grappled with the issue of bonfires since the death of John Steele after he fell 50 feet as he helped build a giant structure in Larne last summer.

The council commissioned a report detailing its legal position around its liability for bonfires constructed on local authority.

It was commissioned following the death of Mr Steele. A family legal representative later wrote to the council, referring to his “wrongful death”, according to a report in the Belfast Telegraph.


A telescopic digger knocks the Antiville bonfire over following the death of a man on Friday evening. The bonfire in Antiville, Larne County Antrim where John Steele lost his life on Saturday evening. Mr Steele fell from the top and was pronounced dead by paramedics later at the scene..


The report by a criminal barrister laid out the potential criminal and civil liability facing Mid and East Antrim and by extension all other council areas where bonfires are build on their land.

Mr Byrne said: “Trying to understand the rules is a nightmare. It is a legal minefield….If we are seriously as a society about protecting the culture…then it is worth considering new legislation

“Currently there is legislation and bylaws of going down the enforcement route.”

Some politicians, including Sinn Féin members, have argued that those organising bonfires should follow the same rules as other public events, including filing paperwork accepting responsibility for any damage or deaths.

The Mid and East Antrim report outlines the complexity of the problem if councils take actions that could be seen as encouraging or actively participating in managing a bonfire event.

This could expose councils to civil liability, but “to do nothing would be worse” as it would offer ”absolutely no protection from a civil claim”, according to the report.

“Establishing a risk management strategy, for example, is not an admission of wrong doing,” it added.

Those studying the problems around who can be held liable for injuries or damage say the issue is further complicated because the bonfires are often so large they affect adjoining land.

They cite the example of the giant bonfire on Sandy Row. In 2017, for example, windows at the nearby Victoria Place flats were cracked and some shattered as a result from the fire.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which owned the land, paid for the damages.


Ulster University senior lecturer Jonny Byrne


Northern Ireland news