Bonfire management schemes have been somewhat commonplace over the past number of years. Most Councils deploy some form of scheme whereby they attach conditions to the bonfire, and as a reward for adhering to such conditions, there is a financial incentive.
This, of course, was all well and good in the formative years of the peace process when everyone was happy enough with a nod and a wink, but times have changed. In recent years we have seen Councils go to great lengths to claim they do not fund bonfires, but instead fund associated community festivals.
Ards & North Down Borough Council take the ludicrous approach of saying ‘we do not fund bonfires, but for entry into our scheme you must manage a bonfire and adhere to certain conditions’. To further compel the ridiculousness of that particular policy, Ards & North Down Council award extra funding if you have a particular form of bonfire, and a lesser amount if you have a traditional bonfire. This all the while maintaining that they do not fund bonfires. The back-door bonfire funders!
This is all well and good until someone antagonistic towards bonfires makes a complaint to the PSNI in relation to some aspect of a bonfire. The PSNI’s first port of call is to see who has responsibility for the bonfire, therefore the same council that has designed the so called management scheme would be under a statutory obligation to hand over minutes of meetings, documents or a record of who received funding to manage the bonfire. This demonstrates the ridiculous nature of councils attempts to ride two horses.
As a strong advocate of bonfires I have long argued that Unionism should not engage in any statutory body led bonfire management schemes. I always believed that these schemes are, in reality, more about chipping away at bonfires and trying to blind the bonfire groups with financial incentives.
Hence why if one looks at the first bonfire management scheme and looks at some of the 2016 proposals, it isn’t hard to see the logical trajectory of these schemes.
The battle for bonfires will eventually be fought out in the courts. That is a sad reality, but one which we should prepare for.
The attempts to regulate and/or devise clever legislative mechanisms to control bonfires follows the same approach as the Government used when dealing with parading. A regulatory mechanism was designed which legally compelled adherence by groups wishing to parade. This effectively cut out the judicial system and instead handed parading decision making power to an unelected quango. One need only look at how that played out for the Unionist community to realise that no good can come from any statutory scheme that seeks to wed bonfire groups to adherence to statutory led conditions.
The objective is to incentivise groups into the system with the lure of financial reward, to strip away a little bit more of bonfires each year, and once they have groups fully embedded in a statutory scheme and/or legislative regulatory system, eventually the money will stop and any resistance at that stage from groups will lead to a policy of criminalisation.
The councils should provide funding for community fun days and children’s events to celebrate the 11/12th July, however such funding should not be tied to adherence to bonfire conditions- especially as councils seek to ride two horses in terms of effectively funding bonfires but then washing their hands of it in public by saying ‘oh no we just fund associated fun days’.
Unionists should not be duped into a process that is designed to tie bonfire groups into regulatory schemes, which will end with the eventual hand over for the decision making process for such schemes to an unelected quango. Take a lesson from the Parades Commission. Let’s not fall into another bear trap.