Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Stalford refuses to say if bonfire was too close to damaged Belfast flats

Engaging with communities way to tackle Bonfire issues, not ham-fisted approach of council, says Christopher Stalford

By Jonathan Bell

MLA Christopher Stalford has refused to say if the bonfire which damaged the homes of Belfast residents was too close to their apartment building.

Windows were cracked at the Victoria Place apartments as the towering bonfire raged on a vacant Housing Executive-owned vacant piece of land on the Eleventh Night. Firefighters stationed themselves on the top of the building, dousing it with water, to prevent the fire spreading.

South Belfast MLA Mr Stalford was asked twice if the bonfire was too close to the building.

"I accept damage was caused to the building, that is self evident," he told the BBC.

He said in the long term there was a need to "get back to what bonfires are about" and the way to do that was by engaging with communities. Belfast City Council, the former councillor said, had been "caught on the hop" over recent events and had caused itself reputational damage with the way it pulled funding for a children's party at the bonfire. He said the size of the fire was the reason for the council's decision.

"We need to work in a way that makes bonfires into - and they are throughout northern Ireland - positive community events.

"We need to deal with certain issues in four or five around the place, but you are not going to do that by the ham-fisted way Belfast City council has done."

He said he had not met any of the residents affected and was not sure if any of his DUP colleagues, but was happy to meet with them in his constituency office which was across the road from the affected block.

Asked if he could allay residents fears a bonfire that size would not be built beside their homes, he repeated that work needed done to make bonfires a positive event that come from positive culture and he was "happy" to work with those that wanted to make that goal.

"I want us to get to the position in the future Northern Ireland society where culture is no longer a contested space and people can celebrate culture and affirm their identity in a way that hurts no one and that has to be a goal for everyone in Northern Ireland politics whether they are unionist, nationalist or none."

Responding to Sinn Fein's call for the parties to work through the summer to break the political deadlock to restore the institutions, he said it was the republican party "themselves alone" which were holding up the political process.

"We have said clearly we will form a government and in parallel if people wanted issues raised we would deal with them," he said.

He said politics can not work on the basis of "giving Sinn Fein what they want".

"Sinn Fein talk about equality but by their actions they are preventing delivering of good services for all," he said.

"The actions of the DUP brought back £1.5bn for all the people, whether they voted for us or not.

"Everyone knows who the problem party are, it's Sinn Fein."

In response Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said the party is not "standing in the way of forming a new Executive".

He said: "The question is what is the long-term cost given that the DUP have handed the Tories a blank cheque for Brexit and unrestrained austerity at Westminster.

“It isn’t Sinn Féin that is standing in the way of forming a new Executive. Like the majority of the other parties, we are happy to go enter a new Executive providing it is credible and sustainable and guarantees the rights of all citizens.

“It is simply unacceptable that rights which are protected everywhere else on these islands aren’t available here because the DUP is blocking them. That needs to be resolved because recent history has clearly shown that an Executive on the DUP’s terms is no good for rights and equality and it’s no good for public services and the public purse.”

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