Huge bonfires burned in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland last night to usher in the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season - the Twelfth of July. While the vast majority pass off peacefully, some have become the source of controversy in recent years.
Why are bonfires lit the night before the Twelfth?
This year, because July 11 falls on a Sunday, several bonfires were lit early on Friday and Saturday night, but the majority were ignited just after midnight.
What controversy has there been this year?
The most contentious bonfire was erected in the loyalist Tiger’s Bay area, which is adjacent to the nationalist New Lodge area. Nationalist and republican politicians said that bonfires should not be situated near interface areas and claimed that residents had been subject to attacks on their homes by bonfire builders.
Two nationalist Stormont ministers, Nichola Mallon and Deirdre Hargey, secured the assistance of Belfast City Council to remove the pyre. But in order for BCC contractors to carry out the operation, they needed protection from the PSNI. The police refused to do so, having made the assessment that an intervention would risk disorder, placing people congregating at the bonfire, including several children, at risk.
The ministers then launched a legal bid to try and force the police to assist in removing the bonfire, which was rejected in emergency High Court proceedings. Unionist politicians have said the Tiger’s Bay bonfire is smaller than in previous years and is a legitimate expression of their culture, and accused nationalist political leaders of raising tensions.
Have the bonfires always been so big?
No. Eleventh Night fires were traditionally much smaller. There were also many more than there are today, with more numerous modest fires constructed on street corners across loyalist communities.
Over the years there has been a move towards consolidating the smaller fires into one central bonfire at the heart of each neighbourhood. This has partly been driven by a dwindling number of derelict sites for fires, but also by competitive rivalry among loyalist areas as to which can build the biggest bonfire.
What is the problem around tyres?
While the bonfires are mainly constructed from wooden pallets, old tyres are often placed in the centre of the pyres as another fuel source. This is an ongoing source of controversy, with widespread concern, including within loyalist communities, on the health and environmental damage caused by torching noxious rubber.
Convincing young bonfire builders not to use tyres has often proved difficult. The problem has been exacerbated by suspicions that unscrupulous tyre dealers use the fires as a way to dump old tyres, avoiding the fees associated with conventional disposal methods.
Why is the Twelfth different this year?
Covid restrictions mean that the normal July 12 mass parades have been replaced by numerous smaller, local demonstrations. Parades will be held at 100 locations across Northern Ireland on Monday, rather than the traditional 18 main parades.
The Orange Order said organising smaller parades was the best way to ensure the demonstrations went ahead. Last year’s parades were cancelled entirely due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.