Firefighter-turned-MLA calls for respectful and safe bonfires

Bonfire is preparation on Saturday in the Pitt Park area of Belfast's inner-east
Bonfire is preparation on Saturday in the Pitt Park area of Belfast's inner-east

With the countdown underway before communities across the land start lighting their Eleventh Night bonfires tonight, unionist figures have appealed for revellers to enjoy the night, stay safe, and be respectful.

Politicians from both the UUP and DUP hailed the annual celebration, while also calling for the traditional fires to be kept free of election posters, tricolours and tyres – although in many places, tyres have already been built into the fabric of the fires themselves.

Pictured are tires being dropped at Ballybeen in east Belfast ahead of the 2016 bonfire. Credit:  Pacemaker Press

Pictured are tires being dropped at Ballybeen in east Belfast ahead of the 2016 bonfire. Credit: Pacemaker Press

Meanwhile one fire commander added that, in his own personal experience, the safety situation around bonfires has been improving over recent years.

Fireman-turned-MLA Robbie Butler (UUP, Lagan Valley) stated that, after years of trying to raise awareness of the dangers of burning massive amounts of rubber, from now on authorities should perhaps start taking a tougher line against the use of tyres.

Asked what his message is for those celebrating tonight, Mr Butler – who used to build bonfires himself as a youth, and who spent 16 years as a firefighter before taking being elected in May – said: “I’d wish them good weather. I’d wish them to go and not drink too much, enjoy the evening, and leave themselves ready to enjoy the Twelfth day out!”

Asked about the safety aspects of bonfires, former station commander Mr Butler: “Tyres are absolutely not necessary. They add nothing to a bonfire – absolutely add nothing to it.

The bonfire in the Ballybeen estate in Dundonald

The bonfire in the Ballybeen estate in Dundonald

“They don’t add to the look of it, the burnability of it, they create very very toxic black smoke, they leave steel rings, steel wires.”

He said the reason people do it is “probably not so much stupidity”.

Rather, bonfires have sometimes been “demonised”, and it could be a case that the people who run them “at times feel like they’re just being pushed and pushed and pushed on everything”.

He said some still have an attitude of “we’ll do what we want”, and it comes down to how the safety message is communicated to the groups themselves.

However, the dangers of setting fire to tyres have been well-known for many years, and when asked if the authorities should simply start removing tyres from bonfire sites from next year, he said: “Yeah, I think so.”

He recalled one occasion when, as a firefighter, he had watched as thick black tyre smoke blew into some houses, and thought: “My goodness – if that was my house, I’d be so cross.”

He also said that he does not believe communities should be rewarded with cash simply for keeping bonfire sites safe and tidy (as happens in Belfast, for example).

When it comes to the placing of nationalist election posters or Irish flags onto bonfires, he said: “I really hate to see it, regardless of who it is.”

He added: “It sends out the wrong message. I think if bonfires are going to be part of our culture to be proud of going forward, it can’t be seen to be inciting hatred or raising tensions, that don’t need to be raised at this time of year.”

Ultimately, he concluded: “The key note from me has to be – enjoy it!”

See this story: we should congratulate bonfire-builders in Sandy Row

Bonfires in east Belfast:

Gavin Robinson, East Belfast MP for the DUP, said: “I’m looking forward to celebrating what’s an important occasion throughout the calendar... with those in the community who want to celebrate it properly.”

He asked anyone preparing to burn tyres to “think again, because they are poisonous, and they will poison the local community, and that’s not what the Eleventh Night is about”, adding that it is “not appropriate” to burn political posters or the tricolour either.

Last year, homes near Chobham Street in east Belfast had to be evacuated over fears the giant nearby bonfire could topple on to property.

While this year’s bonfire in the area has been moved away from those homes and is set to be smaller in scale, the fire is still the source of contention.

Equipment in a newly-built children’s play park has had to be moved amid fears of damage.

In addition, bonfire-builders had placed a sign saying “foreigners out” at the site, although it was later removed.

Mr Robinson said this might be one of the venues he chooses to visit.

Safety first:

Group Fire Commander Edward Carroll said that last year firefighters attended 24 bonfire call-outs from 6pm on July 11 to 8am on July 12.

The same period a year earlier saw them attend 51.

He was asked if this was part of a long-term picture of improving safety.

“It’d be a personal opinion, [but] I would say yes,” he said.

“I think it’s been positive. People can still have their bonfires, but all we want them to do is have them in a safe manner.”

For the fire brigade’s full safety checklist, see this link.