Pressure is growing to end the public funding of loyalist ‘community organisations’ after some of the worst sectarian displays at Eleventh Night bonfires in some years.
Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance election posters, effigies of republicans, tricolours, flags of the Vatican and religious statues were among items burned in some areas.
Several huge bonfires collapsed prematurely, including Chobham Street in Belfast, requiring the intervention of firefighters. Fire crews had hosed down properties there to avoid heat damage, with wooden boardings having already been placed over windows and doors at a cost of ten thousands pounds. Irish flags and Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance posters were placed on the pyre there.
The fire service said it dealt with 52 bonfire-related incidents from Saturday night until Monday morning, 19 of which required intervention from fire crews.
It is understood that all of the loyalist bonfires in Belfast displayed multiple sectarian statements and threats.
Serious violence was also reported at a handful of flashpoints across the weekend, most notably at the Lanark Way interface between the Falls and Shankill Roads in west Belfast. In the early hours of Sunday, homes and cars belonging to nationalist residents were attacked near an interface at Conway Place.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party has now led calls for Belfast City Council to cease funding around loyalist bonfires.
The party made the call after two flags were stolen from its HQ on the Falls Road in west Belfast. The flags were taken days before they appeared on the bonfire in the Lower Shankill.
Party spokesman Gerry Foster said loyalists used cherry-pickers to help build the towering bonfire.
“The irony of naming such a funding package the ‘good relations initiative’ is not lost on us. This bonfire has only done damage to good relations in west Belfast. Indeed, it has introduced the novelty of sectarian tension to a section of our youth who otherwise would have no interest in such nonsense,” he said.
Michael Brentnall, a solicitor acting for Clonard residents, said he has written to Belfast City Council “to establish if Belfast City Council had any role in the facilitation or funding” the bonfire.
A spokesman for Belfast city Council said it had provided cash for “cultural activities”.
“As part of the Bonfire Management Programme, all applicants have to adhere to strict terms and conditions in relation to the burning of flags and emblems, the nature of bonfire materials and the display of paramilitary trappings.
“The spokesman said any breach of its rules could result in “up to 60 per cent of the original grant” being withheld.
Sinn Fein has previously supported so-called ‘peace funds’ for loyalist groups and their ‘community workers’ on the understanding that groups in nationalist and republican areas receive similar funding, but that arrangement is now in doubt.
The party criticised unionists for failing to condemn the sectarian displays and called on the SDLP’s Environment Minister at Stormont, Mark H Durkan, to “get tough on bonfires”.
“Over the weekend we saw disgraceful scenes of effigies, election posters, flags and sporting emblems burned on loyalist bonfires across the North,” said Sinn Fein’s West Belfast MP Paul Maskey.
“Anyone organising a bonfire should have to apply for a licence, ensuring they comply with all environmental and health and safety regulations, and should be held responsible for any breaches.”
Republican Network for Unity spokesman Liam Morrison also challenged the use of ‘Good Relation’ funds for the creation of bonfires throughout Belfast, which he said was sustaining “intolerant displays”.
“The Peace III funds are allocated to the Good Relations Programme on the basis of creating and sustaining good relations between communities, this does anything but.”
Outside Belfast, the appearance of an effigy of former Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew on a bonfire in Moygashel, caused particular outrage. The mother-of-three has branded the act as a ‘hate crime’ and called on the PSNI to investigate.
The effigy (pictured, right), which appeared on a platform on the pyre on Saturday evening, was accompanied by a sign stating ‘Sinn Fein scum, hands off our culture. Public hanging 10.30pm.’
Ms Gildernew, who lost her Westminster seat to the UUP’s Tom Elliott in May, said she was “absolutely disgusted” by the effigy, tweeting, “My children are 13, 10 and 6. Do they ever wonder what this does to them?”
In a strong statement later, she condemned the handling of what she described as a “bigotfest” by unionists and the police.
“When are we going to see some courageous leadership from political unionism and the Orange Order when it comes to this hate filled practice of burning of effigies, flags and election posters on bonfires?,” she asked.
“These are hate crimes and should be rigorously investigated as such by the PSNI. It is unacceptable for the PSNI to hide behind the stock response that they need community support in order to tackle these type of crimes. They are being paid to prevent and stop crime. It’s time they stopped facilitating the litany of lawbreaking associated with the annual bonfire season.”
Elsewhere, effigies of independent councillors Padraig McShane and Gary Donnelly and Palestinian representative Mohammed Al-Halabi appeared on a bonfire in Bushmills (pictured, left).
The straw-filled effigy of Causeway Coast and Glens councillor Padraig McShane is believed to have been added to the bonfire at Bushmills on Sunday. A red target was also painted on the head along with the words “Padraig McShane army council”.
It is understood loyalists were attempting to mock a photograph taken during a visit by the Palestinian official to the council’s HQ in Coleraine last month.
The site of the bonfire is owned and operated by the local council.
“We have requested from the Causeway Coast and Glens Council the disclosure of the role the council had in the facilitation or funding of a recent Eleventh night bonfire in Bushmills in which serious threats and allegations were made against our client,” said Mr McShane’s solicitor, Michael Brentnall.
Images of several high-profile republicans, including an effigy of Bobby Sands in a coffin, were burned on the Ballycraigy bonfire in Antrim town.
A US Confederate flag with the LVF logo and a sign saying “KAT” (Kill All Taigs) were also raised near the pyre.
Meanwhile, an Islamic State flag and Sinn Fein and SDLP posters, including one with a sex toy attached, were on display in Ballysillan in north Belfast.
The largest bonfire was built on council property in the city centre at Sandy Row, creating a terrifying experience for hotel guests at the adjacent Days Hotel after it suddenly collapsed in flames.
In Limavady, the flag of the British army’s Parachute Regiment - who were responsible for the Bloody Sunday killings - was erected at Myroe while UVF flags were put up in the centre of Donemana, outside Derry city.
The PSNI have played down the prospect of prosecutions over election posters and effigies being burned on bonfires, ironically on the basis that the evidence had been burned.
“These items were destroyed on the bonfires and it is unlikely there will be any evidential material to progress,” said Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin.
Reports of sectarian attacks on nationalists in west Belfast on Monday night have also been linked to the bonfires. Sinn Fein said an attack on homes and cars belonging to nationalists in the early hours of the morning. had left people “shaken and frightened”.
A 50-year-old Catholic man also suffered head injuries in a sectarian attack in Larne. The victim was set upon by three men who got out of a car as he made his way home just after 3am.
Trouble also flared in Derry for two nights this week. Petrol bombs were thrown at police in the Bogside and Galliagh area. A delivery van was also hijacked and set on fire in the Bogside by nationalist youths.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams called for political and legal action to end what he called “displays of sectarian hate” that accompany the July 12th events in the North.
“The open displays of sectarian hatred and intimidation which we witnessed around this year’s Twelfth celebrations are, regrettably, an increasing occurrence,” he said.
“These hate crimes are completely unacceptable in any modern democratic society.
“The public burning of the Irish national flag, the burning of the effigies of nationalist and republican representatives and candidates’ election posters are hate crimes pure and simple.
“The organisers of bonfires where these crimes are committed need to be rigorously investigated by the PSNI and the perpetrators prosecuted.
“Police action to date has been derisory, but it is no longer acceptable for the PSNI to stand back while an entire community is demonised and subjected to an annual campaign of sectarian hatred.”