Belfast Telegraph

Listen: Presbyterian moderator Dr Frank Sellar stands by 'sinful' bonfire comments

Unionist backlash after church leader says bonfires 'a means to pass on sins of the father'

By Allan Preston

The leader of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has been criticised after he condemned community bonfires as sinful.

Speaking at the 2016 Ulster University Chaplaincy Lecture in Belfast, Dr Frank Sellar described the annual events in loyalist and republican communities as "toxic" for both the environment and community relations.

"Dotted over this city at certain times of year in both communities are bonfires, which give off the toxic fumes of heat rather than light," he said.

"Given our history and fortress mind-sets, while celebrating and commemorating the past divisively, they are also a danger to the environment, property and human well-being.

"They are not bonfires fuelled by inclusiveness, respect and healing, but a means by which we pass on to succeeding generations the sins of our fathers."

He told the Stephen Nolan show on Radio Ulster on Friday morning he stood by his comments.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is a Presbyterian, but questioned whether the matter had been raised in the right way.

"The moderator is someone I have great respect for, but I am not sure that these comments help address and resolve the issues around bonfires," he said.

The Lagan Valley MP urged "tolerance and respect" for how unionists celebrate their culture "rather than suggesting that they should find a different way of expressing it".

"If we take a more positive approach, we will get a more positive outcome," he added.

North Belfast DUP MLA Nelson McCausland described the comments by Dr Sellar as "ill-considered and inaccurate".

Mr McCausland said traditional 'Eleventh Night' bonfires, lit every July, celebrate King William of Orange's arrival in Ireland and the subsequent Glorious Revolution.

"Is he suggesting that these historic events were 'the sins of our fathers' and that they were somehow sinful?" he asked.

There was strong criticism of some loyalist bonfires this July when one in the Shankill area caused £90,000 worth of damage to five terraced homes in Hopewell Square. Lily Turtle (73) and her two-year-old granddaughter Skyla were asleep upstairs when their house caught fire.

And in August, republicans in Londonderry were also criticised from within their own community after a massive bonfire was built across a main arterial route in the city.

The huge pyre was built at the bottom of the Lecky Road flyover in the Bogside for an August 15 bonfire to mark internment.

Belfast TUV councillor Jolene Bunting said: "There are issues surrounding bonfires which arise every year. The damage to one home in my own area was a particularly stark warning about the dangers which they can pose.

"However, it is important that we do not seek to paint this element of the Eleventh and Twelfth as universally negative. It is an important cultural event.

"Given that the Twelfth is about celebrating the civil and religious liberties won for our nation, it is disappointing that the Moderator did not encourage people to think of the historic events these bonfires commemorate.

"Many of the original fires were lit by Presbyterians to welcome William III, as they feared for their future on the island of Ireland had he not arrived to fight James II. Bonfires don't commemorate the sins of our fathers - rather they commemorate the sacrifices they were called upon to make for their faith."

Dr Sellar's speech was part of the Moderator's tour of the North Belfast Presbytery, where around 13,000 people attend 24 congregations.

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