Police investigations into burning of tricolours and effigies on Eleventh night bonfires will go nowhere

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

An effigy of Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill was erected on a bonfire in Dungannon in an episode being treated as a hate crime
An effigy of Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill was erected on a bonfire in Dungannon in an episode being treated as a hate crime An effigy of Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill was erected on a bonfire in Dungannon in an episode being treated as a hate crime

The PSNI says it will investigate the burning of tricolours and effigies on a number of Eleventh night bonfires. Such investigations will go nowhere, as officers used to admit.

In 2015, then-assistant chief constable Stephen Martin had to remind Alliance “it is unlikely there will be any evidential material” from a crime that involves burning the evidence.

There was a clearer insight into the PSNI’s approach to bonfires last week. Belfast City Council gave one-tenth of its £500,000 bonfire diversion fund to a south Belfast community group that had not met the scheme’s criteria. The decision was made by the DUP and Sinn Féin at a closed meeting, overturning an earlier Alliance-led vote.

It followed a police briefing to councillors there might be violence if the funding was not awarded.

The bonfire funding carve-up has produced some positive results, which is what really makes it an ethical dilemma.

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Green TD Patrick Costello sparked much debate after calling on the Irish government, which includes his party, to make the Twelfth a public holiday. This would demonstrate seriousness to “unite all the people of this island”, he said.

Reaction was notably muted from Sinn Féin, presumably because Mary Lou McDonald got little thanks in 2021 for saying the Twelfth should be a public holiday in a united Ireland.

This is one of the few concrete suggestions the Sinn Féin president has ever made about a united Ireland. She has thought better of repeating it.


The Covid inquiry is turning its attention to Northern Ireland but it has no specific brief to examine the cross-border aspects of the pandemic and the political arguments they caused, as noted with disappointment last year by a lawyer for victims and families.

It would be helpful to have some of these arguments cleared up, in particular the dubious assertion that unionists sought to slavishly follow London even if it cost lives.

In reality, the executive constantly tried to co-ordinate with Dublin but was rebuffed and ignored.

Loaded claims that ‘viruses do not respect borders’ could also be usefully debunked. The border affects human movement – only 500 children cross it daily for school, for example. So of course it affects the spread of a communicable disease.


One of the claims heard at the Covid inquiry is that Northern Ireland was unprepared due in part to losing 4,400 civil servants between 2014 and 2017.

This was referenced by Denis McMahon, a senior mandarin at the executive office.

“We didn’t get those staff back, unlike other parts of the UK,” he said.

Departments were then “cannibalised” to cope with Brexit.

It is a sad postscript to what had been a relative success. Civil service numbers were reduced via a recruitment freeze and a voluntary redundancy scheme as part of a wider deal to rebalance the economy and reform the public sector under the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements.

Much of this was delivered, in what increasingly looks like the high water mark of DUP-Sinn Féin government.


When Northern Ireland’s barristers went on strike eight years ago it was over cuts to their fees.

Now they are threatening to strike because they cannot get paid at all – the hapless Department of Justice is taking up to four months to process payments.

That is despite making a deal with barristers in 2005 to pay them within six weeks, and despite setting up a new agency for the task in 2015.

It is also contrary to the UK law requiring public authorities to pay invoices within 30 days. Failure to do so can result in being taken to court, which would make for an interesting case.


The Department of Education has reduced the official number of teacher training places due to a budget cut from the Department for the Economy. However, it says extra students can be admitted on a “fee-only basis” if Queen's, Ulster and the two teacher-training colleges wish to do so.

The two colleges, Stranmillis and St Mary’s, have been permitted to do this before for non-teaching degrees.

However, that was an experiment to help them grow. This looks more like a crack in the dam.

Universities are legally barred from putting fees up but if they can cover their costs on certain courses without a Stormont subsidy, why should they not increase places – and why would Stormont stop them?


The Highway Code was updated in Britain last year, mainly to clarify existing rights for road users. The most significant change is that a pedestrian’s right of way at a junction begins when they are waiting to cross, rather than once they step daringly off the pavement.

These rules were not extended to Northern Ireland before Stormont’s collapse. The Department for Infrastructure, under pressure from safety campaigners over accident statistics, has pointed to the lack of ministers. But it says it will examine “the decision-making framework set out in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act 2022” – the law implementing indirect rule.

That law says officials can exercise a departmental function if they are “satisfied it is in the public interest".

A clearer, simpler case of the public interest would be difficult to imagine.