Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: We need more action and less pontificating over annual insanity

By Suzanne Breen

You could fill a library with the number of reports and studies that have been published on bonfires. The latest offering came yesterday from the DUP, Ulster Unionists and the PUP.

It brought little new or enlightening to the table. Towards A Respectful Future goes over what we already know and fails to confront the problem areas head-on.

The vast majority of bonfires aren't contentious, but concerns about safety, anti-social behaviour and "sectarian or racist graffiti" have been raised about a "small number", it says.

"Some recent bonfires in east and south Belfast have been challenging for the local communities," the report states. That's the understatement of the year.

Let's recap what exactly happened last July. Four weeks after 71 people died in Grenfell Tower, a handful of idiots lit a bonfire beside a south Belfast apartment block. Those who criticised the location of the pyre in Sandy Row were told they were scaremongering or had a republican agenda.

On the Eleventh Night, I watched as flames lit up the Victoria Place apartments. Video footage captured the panicked shouts of residents inside the 10-storey tower block. Firefighters mounted a herculean operation to avert disaster.

Residents were left with cracked or shattered windows, melted windowsills and smoke damage, but it could have been much worse.

These scenes unfolded right beside the Golden Mile, our allegedly showcase streets. In no other European city would this be allowed to occur.

Local unionist politicians, who would be screaming from the rooftops if this was happening on the other side of the sectarian divide, showed absolutely zero leadership.

The same applies to the bonfire beside Chobham Street in east Belfast. In recent years dozens of homes have been boarded up and families moved to protect them from the bonfire.

In 2016 children's play equipment was removed from the new £250,000 playground beside Comber Greenway to accommodate the bonfire.

This is absolutely insane and reflects a total absence of political and community leadership. Every year brings yet another display of hand-wringing. What is needed is action, not further pontification.

Despite what some claim, paramilitary involvement in problem bonfires is obvious.

If the rest of us went out and started burning material jeopardising public safety, the police and other statutory agencies would be down on us like a ton of bricks.

But firefighters in Sandy Row turned their hoses on the apartment block, rather than the bonfire endangering it, because it was feared that doing the latter would result in a riot.

If it was just a handful of youths building the bonfire near Chobham Street, the situation would have been dealt with long ago.

It's because the PSNI knows exactly who is pulling the strings behind-the-scenes that no action is taken. Police do not want a confrontation with the east Belfast UVF. The desire to avoid a repeat of a flag protest-type situation is what's fuelling the faint-heartedness.

The report says many of those interviewed believe there is a "concerted campaign against traditional unionist celebrations including bonfires".

Even if this is so, unionist political and community figures give their enemies ample ammunition. The time for publishing reports is over. Call a halt to those problem pyres which generate negative headlines every year.

Belfast Telegraph

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