OPINION: Why all unionists should withdraw from statutory-led bonfire management schemes

OPINION: Why all unionists should withdraw from statutory-led bonfire management schemes

By Jamie Bryson

The decision of Mid-Ulster council to impose a ‘permit scheme’ upon unionist bonfires within their area is the outworking of many years of province wide statutory led bonfire management schemes.

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In May 2011 I wrote the following in a submission to Ards and North Down Borough Council;

“The process around the statutory management of bonfires will eventually lead to attempts to impose a regulatory system, underpinned by legislation. This process will follow the same path of the method deployed by the Government to deal with parading. This approach- following the North Report- led to the formation of the Parades Commission for Northern Ireland, which was brought into effect by virtue of the Public Processions (NI) Act 1998.”

Others argued at the time that this approach was akin to that of a “wrecker” and those with “positive influence” should ensure that bonfire groups wedded themselves to the statutory led scheme. Naturally much of this was colored by the generous financial incentive provided to groups for engaging in such a scheme.

All of the incentives, all of the schemes, are simply part of a much greater ‘nudge’ approach. Little by little imposing further red tape, further conditions and luring bonfire groups further and further into a regulatory framework. Ards and North Down Borough Council haven’t yet sprung the final trap of a ‘permit scheme’, but anyone that thinks that this isn’t the ultimate end game is either purposefully complicit in such an outcome, or outright refuses to accept reality.

Already we have the North Down branch of Sinn Fein, who were among those that endorsed the mocking of the Kingsmill families, calling for a permit scheme. A simple look at recent political history in Northern Ireland shows that where Sinn Fein leads, the Alliance party follows. So do not be in any way surprised if, and when, the Alliance party take up the Sinn Fein demands for a ‘permit scheme’ in Ards and North Down Borough Council.

One only need look at the leaked proposals from the FICT Commission to see the trajectory of statutory bonfire management; if the commission had their way then a de-facto permit scheme would be imposed on local council’s via overarching legislation from the Northern Ireland Executive.

Indeed, as was predicated long ago, the ‘parades commission’ style approach is exactly that which has been adopted in relation to bonfires. A report is commissioned in the form of FICT, much like the North report, and then these recommendations would find their way into legislation, much like the Public Processions Act. That is why unionism should at the very least ensure the suspension, or preferably outright collapse, of the FICT commission.

Mid-Ulster is being used as a laboratory to test the permit scheme and to try and break the back of the province wide bonfire community and all of those that wish to maintain such a traditional expression of their identity and culture.

If unionism in Mid-Ulster ‘consents’ to the permit scheme by acknowledging it and asking permission, then unionism in that area will forever be bound by that regulatory framework, just like the bands community are now bound by the Parades Commission. If the Orange Order had refused from day one to ever engage with the regulatory system and simply flaunted it province wide, then it would have become unworkable. Only by consenting to be governed by it did the Orange Order allow it to have any credence.

Negotiations, statutory led schemes, regulatory frameworks and commissions only end one way for unionism. I defy anyone to point to a single commission or regulatory scheme that hasn’t been used as a Trojan horse to eradicate traditional expressions of unionist culture. As such, only a fool would willingly walk into the carefully laid trap of yet another regulatory framework.

I personally believe that no bonfire group, anywhere across the province, should engage in any bonfire management schemes this year. One only needs to glance at Mid-Ulster for a road-map to see where they are heading.

No doubt statutory agencies and others will try to sooth groups with the sweet promises that this would never happen in their council area. Why then not simply go back and look at the first ever bonfire management document and the conditions of same, then look at the most recent. It isn’t hard to discern the trajectory.

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