A BAN on horse trading at the Lammas Fair could yet be lifted after horse dealers persuaded Moyle Council to allow them to put their points to a Fair sub group, writes Nevin Farrell.
A narrow majority of Moyle councillors agreed on Monday April 23 to allow concerned horse traders to meet their Lammas Fair sub-committee to discuss the previous controversial decision to stop horse dealing at the 400-year-old Fair in Ballycastle.
A delegation of horse traders attended a Council meeting in Ballycastle because they were angry about not being consulted before the earlier decision.
Horse traders say their tradition is a big part of the Fair but others have expressed concern about animal welfare issues regarding some horses being brought to the Fair.
Recently the Council agreed to ban horse dealing at the Fair and instead hold shows featuring horses, ponies and donkeys.
Vincent Traynor, Chairperson of the North Antrim Riding Club and ‘Master’ of the Braid Draghounds, spoke on behalf of members of the horse community at Monday night’s Council meeting.
He said the horse community was not asked their views before the earlier decision was made.
He added that there were more pluses than negatives associated with horse trading at the fair and it attracted a large number of people to the event.
Mr Traynor said as well as attracting tourists, the horses draw in “busloads” of people associated with riding schools in Scotland and England.
The people coming to the Fair for the horses stay in B&Bs and wine and dine in the north Antrim area and enjoy the Fair, he added.
Mr Traynor said one of the delegation, from Belfast, sells horse tack at the Fair and he has three or four people working for him and if horse trading was stopped they would lose their jobs.
“We would like the Council to take all this onboard,” he said.
Voicing his support for horse trading, Cllr Willie Graham (Ulster Unionist), said: “I for one would like to support bringing horses back. I have been coming to the Fair for almost 70 years and without the horses the Fair will be even deader than it is at the moment. Without the horses the Fair will die.”
He said the trading should be reinstated, provided there are strict examinations in place and all animals hold a ‘passport’.
Council Chairperson, Cllr Padraig McShane (Independent), said the Council had been “inundated” with concerns about the welfare of horses at the Fair.
He said there are “massive pluses but also minuses” of having horse trading at the Fair.
Cllr McShane said the Council would have no difficulty if the horses were “policed properly and we didn’t have the scenes we had last year”.
He said the Lammas Fair sub-group had taken a decision to “make a stand this year” and he said their remit was to make the Fair more attractive but he said if there was an initiative from horse traders that they would be cared for in the proper manner “I would see a way back in for the horse community”.
He said the current proposal is that there will still be horse events at the Fair.
And Cllr McShane added that with families and young people attending the Fair there could not be welfare concerns as “in this day and age it doesn’t stack up”.
Cllr Seamus Blaney (Independent) said a regular attendee at Fairs across Ireland wanted to know how many prosecutions there had been for cruelty to animals at the Lammas Fair and how many people were hurt at the Fair because of proximity to horses.
The councillor said he recalled only one woman being injured at the Fair in recent years and he said that was by a sheep lorry.
Vincent Traynor said it was a ‘King-Chartered Fair’ and he wondered how the Council could make decisions because of that.
He said horse dealing has been taking place at the Fair for hundreds of years but the welfare issue was only coming to light in the last number of years and he said there were “question marks” over whether photos showing alleged welfare issues with horses were taken at the Lammas Fair.
Cllr Padraig McShane said he could give a “guarantee” there were welfare issues at the Fair last year.
Esther Mulholland, Head of Development Services at the Council, said the original charter could not be found but a member of the public said he had a copy of it.
SDLP councillor Donal Cunningham said there are reputable horse traders at the Fair - and he said the “reputable end of the market” was present at the meeting - but he added: “There are others selling horses.”
One trader in the public gallery said he had been dealing at the Lammas Fair for 60 years.
Esther Mulholland said that in recent years there was an “ongoing desire” to improve the Fair and it was recognised that the Fair has changed and she said in the past there were cattle, sheep and horses “but the nature of the event has changed”.
She said: “99.9 per cent of people do not come here to buy horses, they come here as a family for a family day out.”
Regarding the number of prosecutions at the Fair, she said if it came to prosecutions that it would be a “sad day” and she said that as for dealers’ “policing” the horses at the Fair they were “ten years too late”.
She said Council staff received approaches from visitors to the Fair, including Canadians and Americans, complaining about the welfare of horses at the Fair and she said the animal welfare people and Council staff are not on hand 24 hours a day during the Fair to monitor what happens.
“What goes on in the evening is something different,” she added.
Cllr Randal McDonnell (Independent) said: “The world has changed. We no longer have sheep or cattle sales out on the streets.”
He said the Fairhill Street area of Ballycastle, where the horses are during the Lammas Fair, is “totally unsuitable” as there is “very little separation between horses and grannies and children and occasionally people riding horses through people. The Council has to ensure what is safe and wholesome.
“If people want to trade why don’t they go and hire a field or a Mart, not trailing about through the Lammas Fair in a totally unsuitable environment,” he added.
Cllr Robert McIlroy (DUP) said the Council should apologise to the horse men for the lack of consultation as he said the Council likes to be consulted by people like planners.
He added: “There have been problems but sometimes in our society if there are people doing wrong things we seem to take the easy way out and those people wanting to do the right things, to bring horses to the Fair and attract tourists, then they suffer.”
Cllr McIlroy said the horses are a big attraction at the Fair but he said if there are people not treating their animals right those individuals should not be present.
He said the Council should try to resolve the matter with the horse traders.
Cllr Seamus Blaney (Independent) said it was a myth that horses were not fed or watered at the fair.
Vincent Traynor said many good horses have been bought at the Fair and he said a cob from the Lammas Fair “won Wembley”.
TUV councillor Sharon McKillop said if there were issues with horses ten years ago the Council failed to engage with horse traders at that stage.
She said more marshalling should be put into place, and that traders should be involved in planning of the Lammas Fair and not be “pushed out”.
Cllr Joan Baird (Ulster Unionist) said she realises how the horse traders feel but she said they must also recognise they live in a world in which the Fair is under the spotlight and it would only need “one or two rogue traders” to cause problems.
Welfare issues paint not just traders but the Council in a bad light and if the Council does decide to permit horse trading, she said, it has to be in “very controlled conditions because animal welfaire is of paramount importance”.
Cllr Robert McIlroy repeated the Council should invite the traders to consult with the Lammas Fair working group to see if the matter can be resolved.
Cllr Cara McShane (Sinn Fein) said, to excuse a pun, councillors now talking in favour of having horse trading are “talking after the horse has bolted” as she said nobody had spoken up when the matter was agreed recently.
Cllr Baird said councillors are entitled to look again at decisions and it was not a “fascist state”.
Cllr David McAllister (DUP) said that to him the Lammas Fair was summed up by the image of the late Willie Stewart from Coleraine among the horses at Fairhill Street.
He said it was a total farce to suggest that a few comments from tourists was giving the whole Fair bad publicity and he said if there are welfare issues they should “not be demonising all the rest of the horse traders who run a good show”.
He said the door should be opened to the horse community and he said they should be proud of the fact that good horses can be brought to the Fair.
Vincent Traynor said there was not a lot wrong with the Fair and all it needs “is a bit of a tidy up”. He said there will be the occasional animal welfare issue wherever you go but he added: “Why should everybody be darkened about this one issue in 400 years”.
Cllr Padraig McShane said it was not just one horse they were talking about.
Cllr McDonnell said Mrs Mulholland has already put a lot of work into organising a Shetland Pony show for this year’s Fair and he said they were trying to evolve the Fair into “more in keeping with modern times” and he thought the horse-trading ban should stay.
Cllr McIlroy said: “Let’s be rational about this. Let’s talk it out and come up with a solution one way or the other.”
Cllr Colum Thompson (Independent) said if they are going to consult the traders they will also have to consult with people who have issues about horse trading in the Fairhill Street area.
A Council vote on the matter was narrowly in favour of the horse traders meeting with the Lammas Fair working group.