Belfast Telegraph

Now the smoke has cleared the Executive must tackle burning issue of monster loyalist bonfires

Stormont needs to act to fill vacuum created by absence of unionist leadership, writes Alban Maginness

This year's concerns over the size and position of the monster bonfire at Chobham Street in east Belfast is a bizarre repeat of the concerns expressed last year. Despite the fact that the bonfire in 2015 was monstrously high and posed an obvious danger to the surrounding properties - and, more importantly, the local residents - no significant action was taken by any public authority to intervene and deal with this problem in the first instance.

I acknowledge that remedial action was taken by the Fire Service to hose down the surrounding houses to prevent physical damage and to deal with the fire once it inevitably toppled over. In all, six fire appliances and 35 firemen were required on the Eleventh Night last year. The Housing Executive also boarded up homes and evacuated some local residents to provide them with safety.

But all of these actions - laudable as they were - could not be described as preventative, or seriously addressing the kernel of the problem of uncontrolled, anarchic and lawless bonfire-building and burning.

This year we had a repeat of last year; this time with Belfast City Council removing children's play equipment from a playground close to the new monster bonfire site. All this, of course, at the expense to the public purse - as was the case last year.

The PSNI, council, Housing Executive and relevant Government departments have all failed or avoided making any effective public intervention and have washed their collective hands of any responsibility, citing an inadequacy in the law. All the relevant public bodies which might have some input into preventing such a reoccurrence have remarkably sought refuge in a legal vacuum. But surely this can't be an acceptable or responsible position in a civilised society?

Where else in the civilised world would there be such a civic paralysis? Where else in the world would a Government or its agencies, particularly its police service, become a mere spectator on the sidelines of a potentially very dangerous fire becoming an actual risk to life and property?

Where else would the public become helpless witnesses to outrageous defiance by self-appointed groups of young people in the loyalist community who, according to Jim Wilson, himself a loyalist community worker in east Belfast, are "putting two fingers up to loyalism"?

Even if no serious injury or damage to property occurred, can we as a society continue to tolerate such lawlessness? This raises the whole question of political responsibility and the failure of our Government to take action to fill the legislative vacuum that clearly exists in the regulation of bonfires. It is not as if this is a new problem as it occurs - and recurs - on an annual basis.

The only serious initiative was the Belfast City Council-led bonfire management scheme to give activity grants for good management around bonfires. This voluntary scheme - good though it is - has only been partially successful and does not in any event address the totality of the problem. For years we have seen the excesses which have occurred around bonfires on the Eleventh Night.

These range from the danger posed by the bonfires themselves to drunkenness, hooliganism, even rioting. The accident and emergency departments of our hospitals routinely anticipate an annual stream of injuries on the Eleventh Night, ranging from burns to violent injuries.

The bonfire sites are too often excuses for the flagrant display of sectarian and political hatred, with offensive racist signs, the burning of Irish tricolours, or the burning of nationalist or republican election posters.

I myself have had the indignity of seeing my own election posters elevated onto bonfires, much to the disgust and annoyance of friends and family.

The outrageous painting last week of 'Foreigners out at a bonfire site on the Newtownards Road is yet another example of uninhibited racism and a shameful indictment of loyalist bonfire culture.

Those loyalists who promptly removed it are to be congratulated. But there is a failure by unionist politicians to unequivocally condemn, or even acknowledge, the problems surrounding bonfires.

This failure by them encourages the excesses which we regularly have to endure.

All of us are losers in this situation, but the biggest losers of all are, ultimately, the loyalist community, which will become even more marginalised.

However, it is now primarily up to the Executive to legislate and to regulate a long-term problem that has steadily got worse because of political avoidance and denial.

Unless this problem is urgently - and imaginatively - addressed it will proliferate... and the consequences could be very grave.

Belfast Telegraph


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