Over 20 communities to take part in Antrim and Newtownabbey bonfire management scheme

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Antrim and Newtownabbey councillors have approved this year’s bonfire management programme which is expected to see 23 communities in the borough taking part.

Each participating group will receive £3,500 towards the cost of a family fun day.

A report presented to the council’s Community Planning Committee at a meeting in Mossley Mill, on Monday evening, says the aim of the bonfire management programme is to “bring about improvements in bonfire management, particularly in terms of inclusivity, safety and increased family atmosphere” and to “further reduce the adverse health and environmental impacts of bonfires including the illegal disposal of waste”.

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The initiative will involve a number of site inspections carried out in the run-up to the eleventh night in July by agencies including the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, Housing Executive, PSNI and council. The first will be carried out by the council and take place in mid-May with a further three inspections to take place.

Material being gathered for a previous bonfire in Newtownabbey. Photo :National WorldMaterial being gathered for a previous bonfire in Newtownabbey. Photo :National World
Material being gathered for a previous bonfire in Newtownabbey. Photo :National World

In the longer term, the report says the council aims to “reduce the use of flags, images and effigies, tackle sectarianism, racism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice and promote wider cultural links in the borough”.

Members were advised £80,500 for family fun events and £65,000 for the provision of beacons, maintenance and repairs to designated sites hasbeen included in the council’s community events budget for 2024/25.

Councillors also heard the Housing Executive has indicated it will provide £30,000 of funding towards the cost of the programme.

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Community groups will be invited to sign up at events to be held in Antrim Civic Centre and Mossley Mill on April 18 and 19. Two representatives from each site have been invited to attend a four-week OCN Level II course in events management.

Participating groups will receive £3,500 towards the cost of a family fun day. Photo by Local Democracy Reporting ServiceParticipating groups will receive £3,500 towards the cost of a family fun day. Photo by Local Democracy Reporting Service
Participating groups will receive £3,500 towards the cost of a family fun day. Photo by Local Democracy Reporting Service

Last Minute

Speaking at Monday’s meeting, Dunsilly Alliance Councillor Jay Burbank asked if there would be inspections on July 11 as flags and emblems are put on bonfires at the last minute.

Ronan McKenna, head of community planning, said in relation to final inspections, most take place on July 11.

Dunsilly Sinn Fein Cllr Annie O’Lone asked if there are any consequences if flags or effigies appear on bonfires. The officer said there are financial penalties in place.

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Committee chair Macedon Sinn Fein Cllr Taylor McGrann said there was an effigy of himself on a bonfire in Rathcoole.

Macedon DUP Cllr Matthew Brady commented: “None of us within this chamber would support that. It is just disgusting behaviour. That bonfire was not on our programme.

“As someone who grew up in a loyalist estate, this programme works and has been working over the years. Previously we would have had them (bonfires) on every street corner with flags and effigies. This programme is fantastic and it works. It is the fun days that are funded.”

Antrim and Newtownabbey Mayor Cllr Mark Cooper BEM, a Threemilewater DUP representative, stated: “A lot of work has been done over many years on this. I totally do not agree with anybody’s poster, anybody’s effigy or anything like that going on to these sites.

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“It is totally unacceptable. We do not want it in our areas. A very small minority of people do this but we have to reflect back to the society we are coming from.”

Clear Message

Cllr Cooper went on to say for the bonfires involved in the council programme, there is protocol involved. He also noted all the groups funded are constituted and some are charity registered. “We do not fund bonfires. That is the clear message every year.”

He continued: “I think I went to 21 on the same day. It was great to see so many people out enjoying themselves, from all backgrounds and a lot of ethnic minorities. Many councils out there do not have a protocol.”

Airport Sinn Fein Cllr Maighréad Ní Chonghaile said she was “glad to hear the scheme is having such a positive impact”.

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She continued: “It is in black and white that the council operates a bonfire management programme. Is there no scope for change of wording to ‘remove’ posters, flags and effigies?

“Groups in receipt of money bring with it a level of accountability. Family fun days are intrinsically linked to what happens later in the evening.”

The officer pointed out that more than 23 bonfires take place in the borough, some of which are not in the programme.

Cllr Ní Chonghaile proposed an amendment for the word ‘remove’ to replace the word ‘reduce’ in the council’s “longer term aims” for the bonfire management programme.

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Cllr Brady said groups work hard over several months to run the fun days. “At any event, where you have a minority coming to a bonfire, what is that group supposed to do for a few rogue individuals? My thinking is that if it is not broken, don’t fix it.”

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Cllr McGrann remarked: “Community groups should not be putting themselves in danger. I get that.”

Cllr O’Lone said she does not believe posters and effigies are appropriate in any circumstances and “not when a bonfire is funded by council money”. She disputed that the council is “just funding fun days”. The officer pointed out that £65k is spent on beacons.

Cllr Cooper stated: “We have to bear in mind that we have moved on from flags and effigies being placed on bonfires.” He noted it was “not acceptable before 2015 and is not acceptable now”. He advised caution against “tweaking” the programme.

Cllr McGrann said: “I think the debate has been helpful. The recommendation is that the proposed bonfire management programme be approved.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter