Northern Ireland news

Paramilitary control of loyalist bonfires exposed in leaked report

An Eleventh night bonfire at Chobham Street in east Belfast. Picture by Justin Kernoghan 
Brendan Hughes

PUBLIC bodies have spoken candidly about loyalist paramilitaries controlling contentious bonfires across the north in a confidential report leaked to The Irish News.

Bonfires represent a way for paramilitaries to "extend their legitimacy and control community activities", the study says.

Although authorities do not condone paramilitarism, there are concerns that bonfire management programmes can place staff in a position where they are "turning a blind eye to alleged paramilitary influence".

Many officials are "operating in an environment were rules are at a minimum and the power essentially lies with unofficial organisations and unelected individuals".

The government-backed study outlines the scale of the problems facing emergency services, councils and other public bodies in tackling unsafe and contentious bonfires.

It is among the first extensive examinations across the north of how authorities deal with the issue.

Some bonfires annually cause controversy over safety fears, environmental concerns and offensive displays such as burning flags, effigies and election posters.

The report describes how numerous existing laws could regulate pyres, but authorities are reluctant to enforce them due to fears over staff safety and sparking "widespread public disorder".

Researchers spent several months last year interviewing officials who spoke in stark terms about the issues they faced.

But the report notes the "reticence of so many participants to speak 'on the record', for fear that this would make them organisationally and/or politically vulnerable".

Many of their comments are included in the report, but researchers have chosen to anonymise them.

One interviewee said: "From my point of view there is paramilitary influence at a large number of bonfire sites.

"You get more moderate and hard-liner factions. There is no way something like that is going to happen without the boys."

Another said: "If we get this wrong we are legitimising things. People are extorting, holding communities to ransom."

The report also said:

  • Costs associated with bonfires are significant. In 2016 Housing Executive spending alone reached more than £160,000
  •  In council funding schemes for bonfire groups, "grant holders often feel powerless" to enforce penalties for breaching conditions
  • Housing Executive grants "have been used to fund wooden pallets in preference to rubber tyres"
  •  Several councils continue to "wrestle with legacy issues" from the establishment of new local councils in 2015, with some still operating different bonfire policies based on old council boundaries
  •  One interviewee said bonfire issues "start almost from Easter", as residents contact authorities with complaints about material collections and fly-tipping

The Bonfire Scoping Exercise recommends a "regional perspective and analysis" to "deliver consistency across Northern Ireland".

The 82-page report was commissioned by the Community Relations Council following discussions with the TBUC (Together: Building a United Community) engagement forum – a body set up under the Stormont executive's TBUC strategy.

The study – marked "confidential draft report" and dated November last year – was carried out by Ulster University academics Duncan Morrow and Jonny Byrne and also involved officials from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) and Belfast City Council.

It will feed into the work of the Flags, Identity and Cultural Traditions Commission, which was formed under the DUP and Sinn Féin's 'Fresh Start' agreement to make proposals on dealing with divisive issues including bonfires.

Researchers spoke to bodies including the PSNI, Fire Service, Housing Executive, Environment Agency and the north's 11 councils.

Each year there are approximately 330 Eleventh of July bonfires, 18 August bonfires in mainly nationalist areas, and 22 Halloween pyres.

The report listed seven areas in which bonfires may breach existing laws, including fire regulations; waste disposal; illegal occupation of property; and insurance liability for injuries or damage to property.

However, it said full enforcement of legislation is "rare", citing potential dangers posed to officials and the "real risk of widespread public disorder and the associated financial costs".

Some officials described facing direct and indirect threats from people associated with bonfires, being told not to visit sites or lift materials.

Specific concerns about alleged paramilitary involvement were "often raised during the research", the study said.

Their influence is "complex" but includes overlapping membership with constituted bonfire groups receiving funding; local informal association with particular sites; displays of flags, emblems and other symbols; and "evidence of influence on discussions and negotiations with statutory agencies".

But some officials told researchers that paramilitary influence has "at times been regarded as constructive rather than negative, promoting a family atmosphere and regulating anti-social behaviour".

"In some cases, it could be interpreted that alleged paramilitary structures have provided clearer management and focus, including improving behaviour and stewarding and monitoring events," the report said.

Seven councils run funding programmes offering thousands of pounds annually to bonfire groups for related events.

Funding is usually offered in exchange for improvements such as addressing safety and environmental issues.

But the report found the "apparent simplicity of this arrangement, however, masks a number of complex issues".

In some council areas many bonfire builders have refused money, and for those that agree to arrangements, grant holders "often feel powerless" to enforce penalties.

There are also different policies operated between councils – and even between different areas within the same council.

"In one council grants of up to £2,700 are available. In others no grant aid is available. In some councils, compliance with hate crime and good relations principles is required or encouraged, while in others individuals and organisations have found it difficult to support these principles," it said.

"Smaller Housing Executive grants have been used to fund wooden pallets in preference to rubber tyres. This is expressly forbidden under other grant schemes hosted by public bodies."

The report added: "In the absence of clear frameworks, huge gratitude is owed to agencies, managers and staff.

"It is nonetheless true, that much of this has developed in a pragmatic, ad hoc way rather than with consistency."


Bonfires: Officials on the front line, in their own words

Staff from public bodies across the north spoke candidly with researchers about their experience of dealing with contentious bonfires.

Researchers interviewed officials from authorities including the PSNI, Fire Service, Housing Executive, Environment Agency and each of the north's 11 councils.

Their names and organisations have been not been disclosed after those taking part expressed concerns of potential repercussions.


On speaking out publicly:

"Compared to any other issue it is almost impossible to have anything other than a coded conversation. Nobody speaks with candour because there might be political liability."


Regulation and enforcement:

"The bottom line in the community is that nobody takes ownership of bonfires ... it's always someone else's responsibility."

"Issues of legality, insurance, liability ... its all a grey area that brings a degree of nervousness when you start asking questions."

"Technically we would have a case against anyone lighting one. Including a minister."

"This is tradition and you cannot apply an enforcement approach to traditional practices."

"You don't take environmental health and building control to a meeting on bonfires, because the first thing they say is, 'This is not legal.'"

"Bonfire issues start almost from Easter. As soon as they start to collect material we have to be involved. Fly-tipping starts. Members of the community ring up. We have the regular phoners."


Paramilitary influence:

"If we get this wrong we are legitimising things. People are extorting, holding communities to ransom."

"From my point of view there is paramilitary influence at a large number of bonfire sites. You get more moderate and hard-liner factions. There is no way something like that is going to happen without the boys."

"We live in the real world. I have no choice in this, the different in daytime and night time. People get warned if they speak out. While we have the political vacuum."

"A few years ago, the (name of paramilitary group) told their people to get involved in community stuff, because they saw where things were heading. But is this a good thing or a bad thing."

"The reality is that in this area within the council boundary it works better because the loyalist paramilitaries are better organised here, well, compared to the rest of the area anyway ... when they are less well organised all you get is trouble."

"Loyalist communities with people in command are much easier to work with. Of course they tell you 'we have no control' but it is about encouraging civic leadership."

"And as the guy said to me, 'What do you think, 17-year-olds want face-painting and bouncy castles?' What they do is have two bonfires – one for the families with safety and one for everyone else with the blue bags later on. This is the boys taking control."


Funding bonfire groups:

"To be honest, the criterion on no tyres is a rag to a bull. We have a good relations element and it has to be a constituted group. But these are all hurdles, which prevent engagement."


"The incentive is useless unless you also have teeth."


Tackling bonfires:

"The local level and the national conversation do not connect. Where there is an unsafe bonfire and it needs to be cleared, who has jurisdiction. That needs to be an NI a policy but it is not in place. When do we intervene? When does the safety go over the line? What is our duty of care?"

"Either these bonfires are unsafe or they are not. We need consistent leadership, which will help us get them managed."

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