Loyalists have been urged not to burn effigies of the Pope or Catholic religious items on Eleventh night bonfires this year.
The calls come as the Belfast Telegraph toured bonfires across the city yesterday and heard plans to burn effigies of the Pope and tricolours.
Scores of bonfires are currently being built across Northern Ireland in the run-up to July 11.
Bonfires are part of the Twelfth celebrations and are traditionally lit just after midnight, harking back to when bonfires were lit on the hills of Antrim and Down to help King William of Orange's ships navigate through Belfast Lough ahead of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Some of the tallest bonfires are in Belfast where one beacon at Lanark Way already stands at 50 feet, with plans to double that size by July 11.
In Newtownabbey, The Beast of Ballyduff, as its known, already stands tall on a new £30,000 concrete platform built by the local council for safety.
Last year there were concerns about its proximity to local houses, while the year before that it was unstable because it was built on a slope.
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One of the biggest bonfires in south Belfast is located in Sandy Row.
It currently stands at 36ft high and consists of 900 pallets, with plans to add another 1,000 pallets.
There was outrage last year when a statue of the Virgin Mary stolen from the Holy Cross Church in Ardoyne appeared on the bonfire at Lanark Way.
One of the organisers told the Belfast Telegraph there were no plans to repeat this, but confirmed they will burn tricolours and did not rule out other Catholic items being burnt.
Politicians have urged all those organising bonfires to not burn religious items. Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kinahan said there should be no acts which are deliberately aimed to offend.
"The Eleventh night bonfires should be a celebration of culture and part of an historical commemoration," he said.
"There is no place in such a celebration for any acts that are deliberately aimed to offend and provoke and we should all act responsibly and seek to promote good community relations and show respect for others.
"With that in mind, I would call on all those organising bonfires to act responsibly and ensure they are as inclusive and family-friendly as possible."
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said neither flags nor effigies should be burned.
"I would strongly advise people against placing flags or effigies on bonfires," he said.
"There is no place for this type of behaviour in this day and age.
"It is very disrespectful to people from other backgrounds and shows a total lack of tolerance and respect.
"It is hypocritical for those who call for respect for their culture, if they then seek to burn images and displays from other cultures on bonfires."
‘The bigger the inferno, then the more people who will come to see it’
It may be days away until they are lit, but they are slowly growing into the towering infernos they will become on the Eleventh night. Bonfire night is a tradition dating back to 1689 when these beacons were built to guide William of Orange’s ship up Belfast Lough as he prepared to battle King James for the British crown.
Protestant William went on to win decisive victories against Catholic James at the Boyne and Aughrim among others which more than 300 years later are still proudly celebrated by the Orange Order.
Bonfires are a popular part of these celebrations, with beacons ranging from the traditional — such as the picturesque one on the beach at Groomsport — to the modern environmentally-friendly initiatives brought in by councils to some sites including Castlereagh and the towering ‘Beast’, as it is nicknamed, at Ballyduff in Newtownabbey.
Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph toured six bonfires across the city and found intense rivalry between builders, and even a new pallets-based currency as assorted areas compete to create the biggest bonfire.
Newtownabbey community worker Phil Hamilton explained: “The bigger the bonfire, the more people that’ll come to it, so everyone wants the biggest.”
Historically these bonfires are guarded round the clock as they are built, a tradition which the Belfast Telegraph found intact yesterday with groups keeping a close eye on their creations.
However, there are many issues facing modern-day bonfire builders, as Phil explained. The bulk of the bonfires are constructed using wooden pallets but with tyres now banned, it is challenging to find material for use inside the usual cylindrical shape to stabilise the structure.
“Pallets are usually donated by local businesses or bought, but it is getting harder to get them now with more people recycling,” he said. “Tyres used to be used in the middle of bonfires just to stabilise the structure, Ballyduff haven’t used any tyres this year and even organised for the council to take away tyres that were brought to us. It’s now hard to find material for the middle.”
The Ballyduff bonfire proclaimed that it was created by the community with no funding from Newtownabbey council.
It also bore warning signs that the bonfire committee took “no responsibility for anyone hurt or injured on the wall”.
Phil estimated that it cost around £4,000 to create the bonfire and said the money was raised with local fundraisers.
He described the rivalry between bonfires as friendly. However, the Belfast Telegraph understands that rival areas often lead raids on other bonfires to secure more material.
Across the city at the Lanark Way bonfire off the Shankill Road, locals were gearing up to take over The Beast title from Ballyduff, boasting that its beacon will be the biggest in Belfast this year.
Last year it was still burning on the morning of the Twelfth.
Yesterday it was a towering 50 feet in the sunshine with more pallets in well-ordered lines on the ground ready for assembling with children taking turns climbing to the top.
One bonfire organiser John Brown said it contained 5,000 pallets and no tyres, with plans to double it in size by July 11.
He said residents were strongly in support of it, emphasising that it is a community bonfire, not a paramilitary one.
Last year this bonfire hit the headlines when a statue of the Virgin Mary was photographed among the pallets.
John said: “I don’t think she’ll be on it this year. We took it off the bonfire and she ended up in the hut watching over us, I think she enjoyed herself!”
Last year there was controversy over a bonfire in Newtownabbey dubbed the 'Ballyduff Beast'. The original 66ft pyre was deemed a major safety risk on the housing estate and it was decided it should be moved. The construction was almost twice the size of nearby houses and less than 100 yards from some garden gates, which prompted residents to raise the alarm.