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All eyes will be on us: Loyalists urge bonfire organisers to follow coronavirus regulations

A group of leading loyalists have urged those attending Eleventh night bonfires to follow the coronavirus regulations.

The East Belfast Cultural Collective (EBCC) said that openly flouting the rules would let down the loyalist community which has "shown great spirit" during the pandemic lockdown.

While loyalists said bonfires would not go ahead early in the coronavirus outbreak, some have sprung up around Northern Ireland. Some are said to have signage around the site advising of hygiene guidance and hand sanitisers have been made available.

Police told the Belfast Telegraph there would be an "appropriate and proportionate policing in place" to ensure Covid-19 regulations are followed, while the Orange Order's Rev Mervyn Gibson said he didn't think bonfires should be going ahead.

Bonfire building resumes across Northern Ireland Close

Twelfth bonfire builders at work in Antrim's Ballycraigy estate. Photo: Pacemaker

Twelfth bonfire builders at work in Antrim's Ballycraigy estate. Photo: Pacemaker

PACEMAKER BELFAST  07/07/2020
After being dismantled and removed by PSNI and council workers last month it seems like the Lismore Street bonfire in east Belfast is back on for this weekend.

PACEMAKER BELFAST 07/07/2020 After being dismantled and removed by PSNI and council workers last month it seems like the Lismore Street bonfire in east Belfast is back on for this weekend.

General view of the Pitt Park area off the Newtownards Road in east Belfast where bonfire material has started to be collected ahead of the annual 11th night bonfire celebrations. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

General view of the Pitt Park area off the Newtownards Road in east Belfast where bonfire material has started to be collected ahead of the annual 11th night bonfire celebrations. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Twelfth bonfire builders at work in Antrim's Ballycraigy estate. Photo: Pacemaker

EBCC member Moore Holmes said the organisation had been engaging with bonfire organisers and steps were being taken to prevent the events getting out of control.

"We know that all eyes will be on us and we want to see the loyalist community conducting themselves the way they have throughout the pandemic," Mr Holmes said.

While he acknowledged that many loyalists were feeling angry following scenes at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey "it would make no sense to go out and do the same thing a fortnight later".

It had been expected bonfires would not take place this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but following the lifting of some coronavirus restrictions a number have been announced as going ahead, including in Belfast and Larne.

Under the current regulations up to 30 people can meet outdoors while socially distancing.

The Parades Commission has also received a slew of late applications from bands wishing to hold socially distanced parades to mark the Twelfth of July.

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One bonfire poster listing some of the safety measures in place

One bonfire poster listing some of the safety measures in place

One bonfire poster listing some of the safety measures in place

Mr Holmes said that a number of measures were being introduced including fewer bonfires going ahead and smaller bonfires.

Other measures include the earlier lighting of bonfires and a lack of music at some events to dissuade people from staying out late or consuming large quantities of alcohol.

"Some bonfires are even erecting signage with the public health guidance and providing hand sanitiser," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Mr Holmes said that while calls for bonfires not to go ahead were understandable it was now "inevitable" that some were going to take place.

He stressed that the EBCC did not control the bonfires and were not encouraging them, but felt it was important to work with groups on the ground.

"We are not saying go out there and build yourselves a towering inferno, we do not want to see them turn into all night drinking sessions, we are using the influence we do have to encourage people to hold their cultural events in line with the public health guidance," Mr Holmes said.

Moore Holmes

While there has been speculation that loyalists be may emboldened to go ahead with large-scale bonfires after senior Sinn Fein figures, including deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, allegedly breached coronavirus restrictions at the funeral of Mr Storey, Mr Holmes said this would be "self-defeating".

"We are keen to avoid a raising of the baton, just because Sinn Fein openly flouted the regulations they themselves had a hand in creating doesn't mean we should follow suit," he said.

"While there may still be one or two incidents we are confident that the majority will follow the rules and enjoy the cultural events."

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Rev Mervyn Gibson

Rev Mervyn Gibson

Rev Mervyn Gibson

Orange Order Grand Secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson has called on loyalists to abandon bonfires this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He told the BBC that while he "loved bonfires" he would not be attending any this year.

"Personally I would prefer not to see any bonfires, because I think it is going to be hard to control crowds at them," he said.

"They will naturally attract people."

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said the party "opposes bonfires that pose a threat to life, property and the environment," and action should be taken if any laws are broken.

Police said they would be monitoring any bonfires to ensure that Covid-19 regulations are followed.

"There will be appropriate and proportionate policing in place in line with legislation and the COVID-19 restrictions at the time," a PSNI spokesperson said.

"We would urge everyone in our communities to continue to abide by the Health Protection Regulations."

Belfast Telegraph