More than three months on from the July 11 celebrations in Ballyduff, the burning issue of the estate’s bonfire was back on the council agenda.
At their monthly meeting on Monday night, councillors voted to investigate the possibility of providing a dedicated bonfire site, potentially on Housing Executive-owned land at Forthill Drive, as part of an environmental improvement scheme.
The move, which divided the council chamber, comes after a public outcry from local residents this summer about the siting of the Eleventh Night bonfire close to people’s homes and the risk to life and property.
A majority of members agreed a proposal by Alderman Paul Girvan that officers should be allowed to go ahead and see if a suitable site exists within the estate, and to check out the potential costs associated with such a project.
However, there was opposition to the move from Councillor Tom Campbell, who said that the council should seek legal advice and consult its insurers before proceeding with a potentially costly scheme. He also warned that the local authority could be setting a precedent by providing a bonfire site in the estate.
“We need to know what the financial impact is. We need to take this decision with our eyes open,” he told the meeting.
Sinn Fein Councillor Gerry O’Reilly agreed that the council would be setting a precedent by proceeding with such a project, and warned that residents in other areas such as Glengormley could come forward asking for dedicated bonfire sites.
He suggested that moving ahead with the proposed environmental improvement scheme wouldn’t be in the best interests of the ratepayers, adding that the council would be taking on other problems associated with bonfires such as the removal of tyres.
“We are setting a precedent and opening a door that will not be closed,” he said.
Alderman John Blair questioned if it was prudent for the council to be spending money on what could prove to be a fruitless exercise and suggested that the council seek the advice of the Local Government Auditor.
However, the DUP’s Robert Hill stressed that officers were only being asked to carry out “exploratory work” and said that certain members were “getting ahead of themselves”.
Councillor John Scott said that the issue needed to be “put to bed once and for all”, but he appealed to officers to consult with local residents about any potential bonfire sites.
“We need to be very careful that we’re not opening up a whole can of worms here,” he said.
Later in the meeting, the UUP man claimed that the Housing Executive “doesn’t seem to want to know” about the provision of a bonfire site in the estate, and he stressed that it was important to get the Executive on board.
Alderman Girvan stressed that many council-led projects have been delivered on Housing Executive-owned land, such as playparks and other community facilities. And he added that appropriate legal advice could be sought if council officers identify a suitable site in the estate.
Chief executive Jacqui Dixon reminded members of the seriousness of the situation which arose in the estate this summer, when local residents appealed to the council to intervene after the bonfire was built just yards from their homes.
Bonfire builders did respond to pleas for the bonfire to be moved away from people’s properties and agreed to the removal of thousands of tyres from the site, but it was also agreed at the time that the council would look at the possibility of finding a permanent solution to the annual problems created by the siting of the bonfire.
UUP man Mark Cosgrove said that council members and directors had given residents assurances at a meeting in June that they would look at the issue with a view to finding a way forward.
“There is a very specific obligation on us to have a look and see what’s possible,” he said.
Councillor Victor Robinson agreed, saying: “The residents are the most important people here. They came to the council, at possible risk to themselves, looking for help and we have to give them that help. We have to at least try to fix this problem.
“This is a great opportunity for us to solve the problem in Ballyduff and I think we should grab it.”
Although pointing to the “unique circumstances” of the situation in Ballyduff this summer, the chief executive admitted that there was some concern about the possibility of the council setting a precedent and said that was something that members needed to take into account.
Mrs Dixon said that a proper survey would have to be carried out to assess potential sites. And she recommended that if the council was going to proceed with an environmental improvement scheme then it would have to seek legal advice and consult with its insurers over issues such as public liability.