Northern Ireland news

Unionist parties' report on Belfast bonfires does not mention paramilitaries

An Eleventh Night bonfire at Chobham Street in east Belfast
Brendan Hughes

A BONFIRE report launched by unionist parties in Belfast makes no mention of paramilitaries.

The DUP, UUP and PUP unveiled their joint report yesterday in response to tensions over some loyalist bonfires in the city last year.

The paper, entitled 'Towards a Respectful Future: A report on bonfires and related activities', aims to develop a "common understanding and approach" to the annual pyres.

Bonfires in the city annually cause controversy over safety fears, environmental concerns and offensive displays such as burning flags, effigies and election posters.

There have also been concerns over loyalist paramilitary involvement in some Eleventh Night pyres.

Last month The Irish News revealed a leaked 82-page academic report in which public bodies spoke candidly about contentious pyres being controlled by loyalist paramilitaries.

By contrast, the unionist parties' 11-page report makes no reference to any alleged paramilitary involvement.

Its only use of the word "paramilitary" is in a case study on page 10 referring to paramilitary murals being re-imaged.

Launching the paper at city hall, DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said they had engaged with more than 60 groups for the study.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said paramilitaries are not controlling most bonfire nights in Belfast.

He said: "When does a resident become a UVF man?

"They are out there at a bonfire because their kids are growing up. Are they acting as a resident or a UVF man?

"How would you ever identify that the person who's doing this has been told by the UDA/UVF to do it?"

He added: "We found that they were not involved in them in a controlling way in the majority of them."

The report follows the DUP and PUP last July announcing a "cultural convention" on issues including Belfast bonfires.

It came as unionist parties remained silent about a landmark court injunction the council secured against several pyres, which Sinn Féin insisted was backed by all parties.

The unionist parties' joint statement at the time did not mention the injunction, but instead accused Sinn Féin of a "cultural war".

Mr Hutchinson yesterday said "legal advice" meant they were unable to discuss the injunction. He also declined to say if unionists would support a similar move in future, saying the matter would be addressed in the coming weeks.

The report said some people believed the ethos of encouraging youngsters to collect materials for burning was being lost as bigger bonfires built using heavy machinery dominated the landscape.

The councillors are planning a "Belfast convention", most likely after this summer's bonfire season, to plot a way forward.

The consultation report also said:

:: Most bonfires were well organised and non-contentious.

:: A small number have raised concerns over safety, anti-social behaviour and sectarian or racist graffiti.

:: Many believed there was a "concerted campaign against traditional unionist celebrations" which has created a sense of "alienation".

:: Fly-tipping remained a problem and the playing of dance music was not attractive to many.

:: Serious concerns were expressed about under-age drinking and many would find alcohol-free events more attractive, but many also believed alcohol was acceptable among adults.

The paper called for "effective self-regulation" as the "best way to build community support and confidence."

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