16 April 2005

Daily Ireland

Bonfire sites claim risk

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District councils that make public land available to loyalists for bonfires are risking paying out huge compensation claims, legal experts warned yesterday.
The warning came after Belfast City Council agreed to hand over eight green-field sites and provide grants of up to £2,500 (€3,700) to loyalists wishing to celebrate July 12.
Bonfire site schemes similar to that introduced in Belfast currently operate in Coleraine and Ballymena.
Every bonfire burned on public land throughout the North is illegal, making it impossible for anyone injured at a bonfire to claim compensation.
However, with councils in Belfast, Coleraine and Ballymena now facilitating bonfires there is a legal argument that local government could be held responsible for injuries sustained by a person at a bonfire site.
North Belfast SDLP councillor and barrister Alban Maginness said: “There is an arguable case that councils could be deemed responsible for any injuries that occur at these bonfire sites.
“That would obviously have a major financial impact and I would urge the legal teams at various councils to consider this very carefully.
“In Belfast’s case, I would prefer we take out insurance to protect against any eventuality.”
Sinn Féin Assemblyman Fra McCann is another who insists councils operating bonfire schemes are leaving themselves open to a flood of compensation cases.
“The councils are going to have to be extremely careful,” he said. “If anyone is injured at a bonfire site, and then claims compensation, ratepayers could be forced to fork out thousands of pounds.”
The eight sites in Belfast earmarked for the council bonfire scheme are at Mount Vernon, Westland, Pitt Park, Inverary, Highfield, Sunningdale, Annadale and Taughmonagh.
A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said: “It is incorrect to say that the council is making these sites available. These are sites that have traditionally been used for bonfires.
“The council does not accept that its involvement in developing a strategy with other statutory agencies and engaging with the local community in that process has any implications for its position in the context of liability for personal injury.”
The spokeswoman also admitted the council is currently embroiled in a legal dispute over an accident attributable to a bonfire site on council property.
Last year more than £1 million of taxpayers’ cash was spent dealing with problems caused by bonfires. This figure takes into account emergency services, clean-up and damage to the environment costs.
On July 12, 2004, the fire brigade had to attend 327 emergency calls related to bonfires, more than three times the amount of calls they have to deal with on a normal night.

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