Homeowners may go to court if controversial city fire isn’t removed
Legal action against landowners may be used to end contentious bonfires as residents look at ways of moving the huge pyres away from their homes.
Instead of one bonfire night, this year will see the tradition spread out over two nights because July 11 falls on a Sunday.
Instead of being lit at midnight on the Eleventh Night, some areas will have a bonfire on Friday, while others will have it one minute before midnight on Saturday, with Sunday a day of religious observance.
Moving from dozens of controversial bonfires to just a handful is a step in the right direction.
But with days until the fires are lit, that is of little comfort to those living beside huge pyres.
In Newtownards, a loyalist bonfire close a fire station was mentioned by senior police officers during a meeting of the Policing Board last week as being of serious concern.
The station is expected to be covered with heat-proof protection before the fire is lit.
Residents are concerned for the safety of their property. One homeowner said they were worried about the close proximity of their oil tank to the fire, saying if it catches light, it could cause an explosion.
Added to that, there is damage caused to homes and gardens that has never been repaired, with no owners compensated.
The land the bonfire is built on belongs to the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB), which denied allowing the bonfire builders access but has also taken no steps to remove the pyre.
The PSNI claims it can only work to protect contractors hired by the landowners.
A resident in Newtownards said they were considering action against the SEELB to force it to take responsibility for the fire.
The second bonfire named at the Policing Board meeting was the pyre at the interface between Tigers Bay and the New Lodge.
The area was once a regular flashpoint for violence over the summer, but the hard work of youth and community workers on both sides of the divide has resulted in it being relatively quiet in recent years.
The land falls under the responsibility of North Belfast SDLP MLA and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.
Earlier this week, Ms Mallon met with Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and Justice Minister Naomi Long to discuss contentious bonfire sites, including in her area.
The minister is expected to make a decision on whether to hire contractors to remove the Tigers Bay pyre within the next 24 hours.
If she fails to do so, residents have indicated that they will seek an emergency Judicial Review to force the department into taking action.
DUP councillor and north Belfast community worker Dean McCullough said that there had been extensive work on the ground to keep the interface peaceful and that others should “temper their language” ahead of the weekend.
“There was a bonfire last year, but it didn’t get the attention it’s getting this year,” he added.
“Successful regeneration meant that was the only vacant site to host the bonfire. That’s why it’s there, but there’s a history dating back years of bonfires in Adam Street.
“The bonfire builders, in dialogue, proposed a number of compromises. They offered to move it back as much as possible, to reduce the size, [to remove] all toxic materials and that no offensive flags or imagery would be displayed.
“In the current climate, which is different from previous years, we went above and beyond.
“Unfortunately, those from the departments didn’t meet us halfway.
“We are engaging with the young people on the ground, in and around the bonfire and in and around the interfaces. You see evidence of that during recent trouble.
“That work continues for us throughout the year and we are working very much with the Education Authority, the Basement Youth Club and key stakeholders. We’ll continue that work with those young people long after the Twelfth.
“There’s a tremendous amount of diversionary work day and daily, so people should temper their language and be mindful of the impact that has on the ground when we are working on the ground to de-escalate tensions”.
Sinn Fein MLA and New Lodge resident Caral Ni Chuilin said that while this was only the second year the fire had been on the site, it was causing “immense distress” to those who live in the vicinity.
“There was a bonfire there last year and that was the first year. I cannot remember it being on an interface before that. I went to court last year to get an injunction because the PSNI wouldn’t lift it,” she added.
“I was with residents this week and there were young people on top of the bonfire shouting foul-mouthed abuse at local women.
“I have written to the Minister for Heath, the Minister for Education, the mental health champion and the Children’s Commissioner.
“There are 11 children in two streets close to the fire with autism diagnoses. Two are non-verbal and they have, for the last fortnight, been subjected to rave music that starts at 11pm and goes on until at least 3am.
“Youth workers are doing their best, but there are a hard core of bonfire builders determined to cause trouble and there is no leadership being shown.
“I am concerned every day. The closer we get to the weekend, the tensions are getting higher. Families have had homes and cars damaged and it’s just acceptable.
“I know residents have taken legal advice. No one in the New Lodge is against a bonfire on the Eleventh Night. They just don’t want it on the interface.
“It’s just reckless and placing it on an interface was a deliberate act.”