Paramilitaries not controlling most bonfire nights: PUP leader Billy Hutchinson

A Bonfire on Sandy Row in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison.
A Bonfire on Sandy Row in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Paramilitaries are not controlling most bonfire nights in Belfast, Billy Hutchinson has said.

The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader said it would be very difficult to exclude former prisoners from festivities in the areas they lived in.

Organisations which represent loyalist ex-prisoners, including Charter NI, were consulted as part of a unionist report on bonfires published on Friday.

Belfast City councillor Mr Hutchinson said: “When does a resident become a UVF man?

“They are out there at a bonfire because their kids are growing up. Are they acting as a resident or a UVF man?

“How would you ever identify that the person doing this has been told by the UDA/UVF to do it?”

He added: “We found that they were not involved in them in a controlling way in the majority of them.”

Last year’s Eleventh Night bonfires were exceptionally busy for firefighters, with serious damage caused to apartments in Sandy Row in South Belfast.

Belfast City Council was granted a High Court injunction preventing more materials being added to loyalist bonfires at four sites in the east of the city but there were concerns about intimidation of those responsible for removing the wood.

The council has since voted in favour of a motion to tackle dangerous bonfires.

Friday’s report from the DUP, Ulster Unionists and PUP said some people believed the ethos of encouraging youngsters to collect materials for burning was being lost as bigger fires built using heavy machinery dominated the landscape.

The amalgamation of community groups organising bonfires has created larger units and more materials, and there is competition between different areas to build bigger pyres, councillors behind the report said.

They are planning a Belfast Convention, most likely after this summer’s bonfire season, to plot a way forward.

Key findings of the consultation included:

- Most fires were well organised and non-contentious.

- A small number have raised concerns over safety, anti-social behaviour and sectarian or racist graffiti.

- Many participants believed there was a concerted campaign against traditional unionist celebrations and feel alienated.

- Fly tipping remained a problem and the playing of dance music was not attractive to many.

- Serious concerns were expressed about under-age drinking and many would find alcohol-free events more attractive.