Belfast City Council got itself into an awful muddle over bonfires - what will it take to avoid a repetition next year?
Over the past three weeks, Belfast City Council has had what could be described as a few 'Bonfire of the Inanities' moments.
It was reported that pallets for bonfires were being stored on council property; yet no one seems quite sure who approved the decision. Shortly before a meeting of the council's strategic policy and resources committee on June 23 - which was due to discuss the work of the Bonfire Inter-Agency - most of those pallets were 'stolen'.
At that meeting - described by one source as "heated and confrontational", with emotional exchanges between councillors and council officers, which is quite rare - it was agreed that: "An investigation and full review, led by the chief executive with independent input, would be carried out into the issue of collection and storage of bonfire material and the future approach to bonfires across the city; and that a report on the contractual position relating to bonfire material retrieval be submitted to a future meeting."
Then, on July 7, after media coverage about four "potentially dangerous" bonfires in Belfast, the council, prompted by "concerns for public safety", announced that it had been granted an injunction regarding the delivery of bonfire material to four sites in Belfast.
The wording of the injunction was vague: indeed, a number of legal experts described it as "unclear". For example, the order refers to the "purposes of directing, building, organising and/or constructing bonfires", but makes no reference to the lighting of bonfires which had already been constructed - without, until that injunction was granted, any specific complaint, or warning, from the council. Actually, on all four sites, the council was actively encouraging construction.
When asked by The Nolan Show if the injunction prohibited the lighting of the bonfires, a spokesman for the council responded: "The injunction was obtained in the context of the construction of the bonfire and needs to be understood in that context. The injunction does not expressly prohibit the ignition of a bonfire, or prevent people from attending."
The spokesman also confirmed that the council does not "hold composite risk assessment documents on each site". In terms of explaining what was meant by "directing and organising", the spokesman said: "Directing would signify a greater degree of command, or control, whereas organising might signify some lesser role. Again, to be understood in the context of why the injunction was obtained, which related to the bonfire construction."
In other words: no instruction to remove, or reduce, existing bonfire constructions; no ban on lighting a bonfire; very little clarity in terms of which person, or persons, would be held responsible for any supposed breaches of the injunction; no ban on people attending; and no attempt by the council to secure the sites concerned.
And, most important of all, very little information about who called for/voted for/approved the contents of the injunction in the first place; and why, like so many other things in Northern Ireland, the decision was left to the very last moment.
The council has been trying to deal with the 'bonfires issue' for over a decade now, and, in fairness to it, has secured an overall reduction.
In east Belfast, where I live, it wasn't unusual to have bonfires at the top, or bottom, of streets and damage was often done to roads, gables and property. Most of those have gone in the past decade, along with the flags that used to be flown for most of the summer.
In 2005, the council established the bonfire management programme (BMP) and it also has a good relations action plan to, "promote the positive expression of culture ... working with communities across Belfast to help improve the way July bonfires are managed and provide support to increase opportunities for positive cultural expression. We will help communities where July bonfires occur to connect with the cultural significance of the occasion through the funding of small-scale community festival events and activities. We will also fund activity that raises awareness of cultural heritage and what it can mean to different groups".
The problem, of course, is that Eleventh Night bonfires - especially in parts of Belfast - are viewed by nationalists and republicans as provocative and intimidating, rather than of genuine 'cultural significance'.
In March 2015, the council's strategic policy and resources committee discussed a recent review of the working of the BMP, particularly the impact with the PUL (Protestant unionist loyalist) community. The review had concluded:
l the PUL community feel supported through this programme and may disengage if it was discontinued;
l the impact of withdrawal may mean more bonfires and significantly more environmental and social issues at bonfires;
l there could be a significant resource cost to council and partners to address issues at bonfires with no programme to assist;
l there would be a significant reduction in the co-ordinated effort across a number of statutory agencies to address negative issues associated with bonfires;
l without a co-ordinated programme, there would be a missed opportunity to engage with certain hard-to-reach PUL communities who are not part of the programme, and;
l by withdrawing, or substantially reducing the value of, grants issued, there was a very real risk that the situation would be worse than before the programme commenced in 2005.
The BMP project is clearly aimed at assuaging the PUL community that their rights and heritage are not being trampled down. Many in this community believe that they have been let down by the mainstream unionist parties; they don't trust the media; they believe that they are deliberately sidelined; they also believe that - along with their traditions - they are being singled out and targeted by a council that no longer has a unionist majority.
That's why bonfires matter to them. That's why bonfires adorned with tricolours, emblems, posters, effigies and symbols et al, matter to them. When you believe that you are on the losing side, you tend to return to a self-defeating default position.
The council - along with the parties on the council - need to address that issue.
Mainstream unionism also needs to ask itself one particular question: why does the PUL community in parts of Belfast (and in a few other areas, too) believe that the burning of SDLP/Sinn Fein/Alliance posters, the burning of a coffin with Martin McGuinness's face and the 'hanging' of republican hate figures, represent their 'culture'?
Let's face it: 'celebrations' based on hatred will, quite literally, go up in smoke.
Bonfires are one element of loyalist/unionist culture: as they are elements, too, of other cultures. In most parts of Northern Ireland, they are fun, family-friendly, controlled, safe and harmless. A few, mostly in Belfast, are none of those.
The council - along with PUL representatives - has made welcome progress since 2005. More work is required. But that work will also require mainstream unionism (and the Orange Order) to engage and educate a loyalist community that feels neglected.
It will also require Sinn Fein to step back just a bit and allow the BMP and the good relations action plan a little more breathing-space.