DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has condemned the burning of Irish tricolours and election posters on bonfires around Northern Ireland after pyres were lit on the Eleventh night.
Sir Jeffrey said it’s important to “continue working with those who organise bonfires to look at safety issues and look at the height of bonfires and where they are located” after the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) dealt with a “significant increase in emergency calls and mobilisations to bonfire related incidents” on the Eleventh night.
In an interview with the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster radio programme, the DUP leader said he wanted to commend the fire service and community leaders who ensured the night went off “peacefully” and said “public safety is paramount”.
A bonfire at Adam Street in Tiger’s Bay in north Belfast, which had been subject to legal action, passed off without incident.
NIFRS dealt with 40 bonfire-related call outs between 6pm on Sunday and 2am on Monday compared with 24 in the same timeframe last year, when restrictions curbed Twelfth celebrations.
The tallest bonfire in Northern Ireland at Craigyhill in Larne was lit one minute after minute to celebrate the 11th of July. The stack later collapsed in a wave of fire which spread flames across the ground towards spectators.
The Adam Street bonfire, close to an interface with the nationalist New Lodge, was lit shortly after midnight. It was subject to legal action in which two Stormont ministers failed in a bid to force police to assist in the removal of the bonfire. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said the move “wasn’t helpful”.
After Sinn Fein and SDLP ministers Deirdre Hargey and Nichola Mallon failed in a bid to remove the bonfire at Adam Street, Sir Jeffrey said the Tiger’s Bay bonfire was “significantly reduced in size” this year.
“You can still celebrate your tradition and your culture and you don’t have to have the highest bonfire in the world to do that,” he said.
“We have seen a number of bonfires this year where flags and posters were not included,” he said. “We’ll continue to work on that. I don’t want to see election posters or flags burned on bonfires,” he said. “Respect is a two-way street.”
“I’ve seen the union flag burned on internment bonfires. I find it offensive and therefore I understand why people are offended,” he said.
“We need to encourage and promote respect. The Republic of Ireland are our neighbours and I don’t want to see their flag burned anymore than I want to see the union flag burned on other bonfires.”
He said he disagreed with any move by ministers to “force the police to take certain action”. If that is the case, “I think we need to be sure we apply the same standard across the board,” he added.
Sir Jeffrey said he met with the Chief Constable and discussed the Tiger’s Bay bonfire. He said Simon Byrne took the view it was “sensible” not to remove the bonfire. “The PSNI has operational independence and it’s not the place of politicians to run to court to try and force the police to take operational decisions,” Sir Jeffrey said.
The leader of the TUV Jim Allister said on the Nolan programme the burning of the Irish tricolour was “unnecessary and inappropriate” but the flag has been “demeaned and diminished” in its use by “terrorists”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Nolan radio programme, he said: “It’s wrong to misuse the flag in that way and it’s wrong to burn the flags of other countries on bonfires. But it’s much ado about something that is not of the greatest significance in terms of the cultural expression that some would seek to supress in respect of the bonfires,” he said. “I don’t think you could put a price on culture.”
Pastor Brian Madden from Tiger’s Bay told the BBC those on both sides of the interface had worked to calm tensions, but said the Executive had to start work now to make sure the same situation did not arise next year.
“We’ve worked hard to make sure this has been peaceful and I know people on the other side have worked hard to make sure the New Lodge has been peaceful,” he said.
“People don’t know the half of the effort that’s gone into this - meetings, behind meetings, behind meetings. I know people think it’s all one-sided, but we’ve been working really, really hard to get the bonfire moved, to get the tyres out and other stuff removed off it.
“I know they burnt a flag tonight and I don’t condone that at all, I didn’t want anything burned on it.”
An NIFRS spokesperson said it was was “exceptionally busy on each of the three nights of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with “direct intervention required to protect properties from radiated heat and embers from the bonfires”.
In total, they dealt with 81 bonfire-related callouts.