The yearly debate over loyalist pyres is as heated and divisive as ever. The Belfast Telegraph visited two contentious sites to gauge the temperature
It is a burning issue that heats up every summer. As bonfire builders put the final touches on their Eleventh Night pyres in the week before they are lit, tensions invariably rise in some of the most contentious areas of Northern Ireland.
Around 250 bonfires are being built ahead of the Twelfth celebrations.
In north Belfast, those behind this year’s bonfire in Tigers Bay have placed theirs directly opposite a peace wall dividing the loyalist district with the republican New Lodge.
Chief Constable Simon Byrne described it as the “most contentious” of the year.
Elsewhere, Newtownards has come under the spotlight, with the mega structure opposite the town’s fire station criticised by many.
The Belfast Telegraph paid a visit to both sites yesterday to gauge the temperature of the local community and those building the bonfires.
Exiting Newtownards town centre and turning on to Portaferry Road, you are met by the 20-metre high bonfire on the site of the old Castle Grounds Primary School.
Politicians have expressed concern that the extreme heat from it could cause damage to nearby buildings, as well as the fire station on the other side of the road.
It is expected the station and properties in close proximity will be covered with thermal protection on July 11.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service said plans are in place to ensure cover is available, while two appliances will be on hand to deal with any emergencies in the Newtownards area.
Bonfire builders were busy making the symmetrical structure even taller yesterday.
But Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong told of her dismay at its size.
“The bonfire is on Education Authority [EA] land,” she told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.
“I have been asking Michelle McIlveen, the new Minister for Education, what the policy is on allowing bonfires on land.
“Is there insurance protection in place? If they have allowed the bonfire on their land, provided the keys for the fencing that goes round that old primary school site, then what is the insurance cover?”
The EA later refuted Ms Armstrong’s suggestion that those behind the bonfire were given a key to the gate to access the grounds.
It said it had only “recently” been made aware of the bonfire being built on the site.
“EA continues to work with community officers in Ards and North Down Borough Council and with the PSNI’s Neighbourhood Policing Team to achieve the best outcome for the local community,” the EA added.
Two men on top of the pyre were placing the wooden pallets after they had been lifted by a JCB lift yesterday afternoon.
One young boy was helping the three men with their work as a sign at the front gate read: ‘No more dumping. Thank you! WATP.’
A sign on the fence enclosing the EA property said it was a ‘community bonfire’. It also said ‘this bonfire is regularly monitored for fly tipping and illegal dumping. You will be reported to the council.’
The JCB lift operater said he couldn’t understand why the bonfire has come in for criticism as it is in the same spot every year.
“I don’t know why they’re kicking up such a fuss this year, we’ve always been here,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“The fire station has always been there, but for some reason they’re focusing on us this year.”
He added that Newtownards bonfire is “probably the cleanest in Northern Ireland” as they have several brooms placed around the site to ensure the road remains clear and passable.
At nearby Upper Greenwell Street in the Movilla estate Rangers, UDA, UFF and Ulster Young Militants flags adorn the lampposts as preparations continue for the July fortnight.
Two local residents were in total support of the bonfire, and were also confused as to why Newtownards has become such a focus.
“I have no idea why it’s being talked about,” said one woman.
“It’s absolutely crazy. We woke up and saw the newspaper and were like: ‘Oh my God, where has all of this came from?’ We couldn't believe it.
“It’s always been that size and in the area.
"Everybody in the community is grand with it. It’s been here every year.
“The community loves it and comes out in full swing.
“Last year was the only year we didn't have it because of Covid, but it’s been there for at least nine years.
“It’s always good. They have music on the speakers and it’s always good craic. The residents all love it.
“They always light it early to make sure the kids can come out and enjoy it. It’s brilliant every year.”
Another resident echoed her friend’s remarks and said she didn't understand the “fuss”.
This reporter’s presence in Tigers Bay wasn't as warmly welcomed as in Co Down. The small estate and its side streets have already been decorated with red, white and blue bunting, Union flags and Ulster flags.
Its 10-metre high pyre faces directly onto Duncairn Gardens emblazoned with a huge Union Jack and adorned with a large sign which reads: “Loyalist Tigers Bay Bonfire’.
Four youths stood guard around the bonfire to prevent anyone destroying it before the Eleventh Night.
Their efforts to keep any outsiders away extended to the Belfast Telegraph, as they shouted obscenities and became hostile.
Business owners on nearby Antrim Road declined to comment on the bonfire as they welcome customers from both sides of the community and felt they were safer saying nothing.
Speaking at Thursday’s Policing Board meeting, Mr Byrne said the role of the police is to “facilitate contractors” employed by the landowner to remove bonfire material.
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said loyalists were using the Tigers Bay pyre to throw golf balls towards nationalist homes, smashing windows and damaging cars.
“We continue to work with the ministerial departments that have ownership of the land, which is the first point of resolution to this,” the Chief Constable said. “We’re just here to facilitate any removal of the bonfire by contractors, not to get involved with doing it ourselves.”
As the days tick down to the Eleventh Night, the debate will rumble on as to whether certain bonfires should or should not be where they are, or what height they should be.
One thing is for sure — those loyalists building them have no intention of ending the annual tradition, no matter what anyone says.