Belfast Telegraph

Any changes on bonfires 'must be community-led'

by Allan Preston

Unionist councillors in Belfast say the stamping out of paramilitary influence and anti-social behaviour during bonfire season must be community-led.

Five councillors from the DUP, UUP and PUP shared a report - Towards A Respectful Future - at City Hall yesterday setting out the views of the unionist community around bonfires.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said identifying the true extent of paramilitary influence was difficult, as members of the UVF and UDA were also residents.

The councillors engaged with groups like Charter NI, which represents loyalist ex-prisoners.

Mr Hutchinson asked: "When does a resident become a UVF man? They are out there at a bonfire because their kids are growing up.

"Are they acting as a resident or a UVF man?"

He added: "We found that they were not involved in them in a controlling way in the majority of them."

He said speaking to organisations like Charter NI was more conducive, and hoped to "make sure people in the community make decisions, not the UVF".

The report says the vast majority of bonfires in Belfast were non-contentious, with only a small number causing problems with health and safety or anti-social behaviour, as well as racist and sectarian signs.

The report claims a widespread sense of alienation contributed to the difficulties, with many feeling there was a concerted campaign to stop traditional unionist celebrations.

The DUP's Lee Reynolds said there was an aspiration for a respectful and peaceful bonfire season, but claimed there were "darker agendas" from other political parties, which wanted bonfires to "disappear", or be "watered down" so much that they lost their meaning.

"The vast majority of bonfires aren't organised by paramilitaries." Mr Reynolds added:

"There were bonfires built in Belfast long before paramilitaries existed."

UUP councillor Jim Rodgers said: "We're totally opposed to any paramilitarism, but we can't ignore people.

The report acknowledges that other issues like fly-tipping, the burning of tyres and under-age drinking damaged the image of bonfire night.

The playing of dance music at bonfires was described as "not attractive to many in the unionist community", but some believed that it added to the atmosphere of the celebrations.

John Kyle from the PUP said he supported practical actions, like educating young people on the history of their culture.

Mr Kyle also called for those celebrating bonfires "to feel comfortable in their own skins" celebrating unionism "without showing contempt" for nationalism.

The Woodvale Festival in the north of the city and the Diamond Beacon Project in east Belfast were cited as positive examples.

The councillors said that after this year's bonfire season they hoped to host a convention involving a wide range of community groups to discuss an agreed future.

Last year bonfires brought serious pressures for emergency services and endangered some residents, with extensive damage caused to apartments at Sandy Row.

Belfast City Council was granted a High Court injunction to prevent more materials being added to four loyalist bonfires in east Belfast.

At the time there was concern that those attempting to remove the material faced intimidation. The council has since passed a motion to tackle dangerous bonfires.

SDLP group leader on Belfast City Council Tim Attwood welcomed yesterday's report.

He said: "I fully recognise the importance of bonfires to the wider unionist community as part of their celebration of their culture and tradition.

"The SDLP wish to engage in a discussion with the wider unionist community which tackles the negative, dangerous and sinister aspects of bonfires, while supporting developments which enhance unionist cultural celebrations."

Belfast Telegraph

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