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Bonfire season can only cement traditional divisions

Bonfire season is upon us once again – if only there were more positive ways for young people to celebrate their culture without risking damage to people, property and community relations, writes Leona O'Neill...

People attend an 11th night Bonfire in the Sandy Row area of Belfast

BONFIRE season starts next week. We will see them lit in loyalist areas this month and republican areas next month. Every year we do the same thing. We celebrate one, we are outraged by the other. Divisions grow. Hatred burns bright. We condemn. We clean up after them and forget about them until next year when we do the same dance again.

I am not demonising bonfire builders. I spent my years as a reporter talking to builders in loyalists and republican areas. Most of them are young people who are passionate about their culture and traditions and feel a real sense of duty to their community. They take real pride in building the structures that will allow their community to gather around for the night. And some of them are seriously talented engineers, to create these towering structures.

I brought my Vice News crew to a bonfire in Glencairn last year, a mammoth structure around four stories high, constructed on a slope, symmetrical and perfectly formed. The young men building it were strategic and meticulous and they took a real pride in talking about their work.

We also visited the bonfire beside Sandy Row and one young man told me there that the skills of bonfire building, and building them well, had been passed down from his father and his father before him. The structures are certainly not thrown together.

I am speaking as someone who has been there for the building and the burning of these structures, not just commenting from afar. I am speaking as someone who has gone to the bonfires and spoken to the builders and the people on the sidelines, and the people in the houses nearby and the people gathered around them on the Shankill and in the Bogside.

Despite all the traditions that people hold dear with regard to these structures, they are still toxic, in more ways than one, and the skills of those putting them together, and the energy and enthusiasm that the young people utilise in building them could be put to far better use.

When speaking to these young bonfire builders in Belfast and Derry and elsewhere I found that despite what some might think, they have a strong sense of community. They want to build something good for their community, something people can enjoy. And they take great pride and put much energy into doing that.

Despite all of that we simply cannot get away from the very negative impact of bonfires. People may very well hold them dear, there are other people who are intimidated by large crowds of people drinking around them on bonfire night. There are people who fear that their houses, near the fires, will go up in flames.

And that's not even considering the sectarian symbols and burning of their neighbours' flags and tension on the peace lines. That's not considering the anti-social behaviour associated with them. That's not considering the fact that the Fire Service have to hose down important buildings near them so they don't catch fire. That's not considering the cost to the public purse of the clean-ups – according to Belfast Live it was £800,000 in last three years.

To be honest, I fail to see any positives in them whatsoever. There is bound to be a better way to harness the energy and enthusiasm of these young people and put it to a productive, progressive, positive use. Looking at the construction of some of the pyres, these guys would make excellent architects and engineers and do well on building sites.

Traditions are important, for sure, but ones that offend, insult and terrify your neighbours, are often dangerous, cause a huge mess and subsequent cost that the rate payers must meet, cannot possibly be counterbalanced.

This is not a slight on anyone's culture. Bonfires on the Shankill are surrounded by as much negativity as those in the Bogside. I've been to both and seen what goes on there and indeed what goes on them with my own eyes.

We'll never move away from our divisions if we continue with these traditions. We can make new traditions, surely, ones that celebrate our young people's energy and enthusiasm and love of their culture in a positive way. Bonfires belong in the past.

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