Paramilitaries not controlling most Belfast bonfires – Hutchinson
Paramilitaries are not controlling most bonfire nights in Belfast, Billy Hutchinson has said.
The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader said it would be very difficult to exclude former prisoners from festivities in the areas they lived in.
This comes in response to a report produced for Belfast City Council by the DUP, the UUP and the PUP on bonfires and related activities in the city.
Organisations which represent loyalist ex-prisoners, including Charter NI, were consulted as part of a unionist report on bonfires published on Friday.
Belfast City councillor Mr Hutchinson said: “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?
“How would you ever identify that the person doing this has been told by the UDA/UVF to do it?”
He added: “We found that they were not involved in them in a controlling way in the majority of them.”
In a joint statement on the report, the three parties said "a wide range of groups and individuals have contributed offering helpful perspectives and ideas and as a result we are confident we have captured the mood of the Unionist community".
"There are clearly those who wish the bonfire tradition to disappear or become so ‘watered down’ that it becomes meaningless. This is disappointing and is a sad reflection on their lack of tolerance and respect," they said.
"In contrast, the united approach by the Unionist parties on Belfast City Council reflects a determination to encourage Unionists and Loyalists to unite and provide the leadership required around this issue.
"We will not be distracted by those with darker agendas and we urge all those in the community with an interest to continue their engagement with us, as our strategy progresses.
"This paper does not seek to ‘solve’ issues around bonfires, it is the basis on which we will approach this issues politically in Belfast."
Last year’s Eleventh Night bonfires were exceptionally busy for firefighters, with serious damage caused to apartments in Sandy Row in south Belfast.
Belfast City Council was granted a High Court injunction preventing more materials being added to loyalist bonfires at four sites in the east of the city but there were concerns about intimidation of those responsible for removing the wood.
The council has since voted in favour of a motion to tackle dangerous bonfires.
Friday’s report from the DUP, Ulster Unionists and PUP said some people believed the ethos of encouraging youngsters to collect materials for burning was being lost as bigger fires built using heavy machinery dominated the landscape.
The amalgamation of community groups organising bonfires has created larger units and more materials, and there is competition between different areas to build bigger pyres, councillors behind the report said.
They are planning a Belfast Convention, most likely after this summer’s bonfire season, to plot a way forward.
Key findings of the consultation included:
– Most fires were well organised and non-contentious.
– A small number have raised concerns over safety, anti-social behaviour and sectarian or racist graffiti.
– Many participants believed there was a concerted campaign against traditional unionist celebrations and feel alienated.
– Fly tipping remained a problem and the playing of dance music was not attractive to many.
– Serious concerns were expressed about under-age drinking and many would find alcohol-free events more attractive.