Nationalist bonfire violence irrelevant to next July: PUP councillor

Damage caused to a disused credit union building in the lower Falls area that was set on fire on Monday night
Damage caused to a disused credit union building in the lower Falls area that was set on fire on Monday night

The removal of material from bonfire sites in nationalist areas of Belfast – and the violence that followed – should not be seen as a precedent for next July’s loyalist bonfire celebrations, a PUP councillor has said.

Dr John Kyle said the rioting and arson attacks on Monday proved that community engagement was the way forward, rather than the “high-handed” approach advocated by Sinn Fein in the council chamber.

A bonfire in the nationalist New Lodge area of north Belfast that was due to be set alight on Tuesday night

A bonfire in the nationalist New Lodge area of north Belfast that was due to be set alight on Tuesday night

The trouble flared in the Markets area close to the city centre on Monday afternoon and later spread to the Divis area of west Belfast.

The removal of material from a nationalist ‘anti-internment’ bonfire in the Markets – carried out by council-hired contractors – is understood to have triggered the disorder.

“It is wrong to think that August bonfires and July bonfires are an exact equivalent – they’re not.

“They have got different histories, and different traditions, and therefore they do need to be addressed in a different way,” Dr Kyle said.

It is wrong to think that August bonfires and July 11 bonfires are an exact equivalent – they’re not

PUP councillor John Kyle

“Unlike [Sinn Fein councillor] Jim McVeigh, I am not going to get up and preach to the republicans/nationalists about how they should address their problem with bonfires. It is for them to work that out with their communities.

“I think in many respects this [violence] was predictable. Sinn Fein were determined to act in this high-handed manner and this demonstrates that this is a much more complex issue than simply passing a motion in council and then ordering council officers to go in and remove the material.

“Experience proves that community engagement is the only way forward that effectively changes a situation.

“You can use force to address a problem, but ultimately the problem comes back to bite you, and therefore community engagement, cooperation, negotiation and patience are necessary to resolve an issue like this.

“Everybody agrees that there are aspects of bonfires that are dangerous, that are anti-social and undesirable, but we have got to resist the temptation to think that we are a police state and that we can issue directives and solve problems by doing that,” he added.

Commenting on social media posts from loyalists warning about a similar approach being taken ahead of the Eleventh night bonfires next year, Dr Kyle said: “Issuing threats is no way to address issues of culture and cultural celebration.”

The East Belfast councillor also said he didn’t expect the council to take “any more active steps to address the issues” ahead of the independent investigation on bonfires report that will be available in mid-September.

“At that point in time we will have a debate and a conversation about how we can continue to build on the progress that was achieved with the Eleventh night bonfires, and the progress that was evident this year despite the three or four examples that were problematic.

“The vast majority of bonfires went off peacefully so we need to look at how we build on that progress,” he added.

Tensions have been raised in some loyalist and nationalist areas in Belfast this summer amid efforts by the council to take action against a number of unregulated fires.

Bonfires were due to be lit in some nationalist/republican areas on Tuesday night to mark the anniversary of the introduction of the controversial state policy of internment without trial.

Monday night’s disturbances saw officers targeted with petrol bombs, bricks and bottles while a number of cars were destroyed. Many were owned by commuters.

The incidents centred in the Stewart Street and Friendly Street areas of the predominantly nationalist neighbourhood. The shells of three burnt-out cars were still on Stewart Street yesterday morning, with commuters continuing to park on the street despite the visible signs of violence. The trouble in the Divis area of the Lower Falls Road centred on the Ross Road area.

A derelict credit union building was set alight during the disturbances.

Deirdre Hargey , Sinn Fein councillor for the Markets area, said: “The community does not want this type of behaviour and it’s not representative of the people of this area.”

PSNI Superintendent Andrea McMullan said: “Police will not tolerate such wanton violence and, as they did [on Monday], will deploy the necessary resources to detect and deter those responsible.”