Questions need answered over Belfast council's involvement in storing pallets linked to controversial bonfires
Politics in Northern Ireland often descends into the surreal, but Belfast City Council's involvement with bonfires this year reaches a new level of absurdity. First of all, it was revealed that the council was storing thousands of pallets for use on two contentious bonfires. Now it has been learned that the pallets have been stolen from the storage area.
Most bizarrely of all, the council may have to fork out a six-figure sum to replace the stolen material. We are accustomed to the waste of public money, but to literally see it go up in smoke is a new vista.
Quite how or why the council got itself embroiled in this situation is not entirely clear. After all, its good relations policy is aimed at encouraging bonfire builders to act responsibly by rewarding those who do with funding for community events associated with the bonfires.
But the pallets were meant for two bonfires which have attracted controversy in recent years - one at Chobham Street in east Belfast, where homes had to be protected from the heat of a massive bonfire in 2015 and where last year a new children's playground had to be relocated to facilitate the towering edifice. The other, near a hotel at Hope Street, does nothing to provide a welcome to guests staying there.
It has to be accepted that bonfires are seen by part of the community as symbols of their culture. What some find harder to grasp is that the celebrations bring a sense of responsibility with them.
Many people of other cultures or religions wonder how the placing of religious icons or placards bearing images of political opponents on bonfires equates with cultural expression.
Criticism, however, only brings a defensive response and entrenched views. An honest and open conversation on cultural touchstones could lead to greater understanding of what drives the bonfire builders and their supporters, and why outsiders view their activities with some bafflement. The sooner it begins, the better for all concerned.