Sinn Féin has said that the handling of a strongly opposed bonfire built by nationalist youths which led to a riot in the New Lodge area of Belfast last week was wrong and that ‘lessons needed to be learned’.
The PSNI laid siege to the bonfire site for ten hours last Thursday, but the operation was stymied by one youth who climbed to the top and remained there for several hours. Having arrived in what had appeared to be overwhelming numbers in the early morning, the PSNI eventually withdrew as clashes with the youths began to intensify.
The bonfire, held on the anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial of republicans in 1971, was eventually lit at midnight as planned. In recent years, it has become associated with anti-social activity and sectarian symbols which mimic those seen on loyalist bonfires in July.
Coming in the week of the anniversary of very serious rioting, there was relief that the PSNI operation, which had threatened to explode into serious violence, had ended relatively peacefully. A claim by a PSNI spokesperson that breakaway IRA groups were involved in the bonfire was widely dismissed as an attempt to justify their withdrawal.
Unionists and right-wing nationalists expressed dismay at the decision of the PSNI to withdraw after a media campaign expressed support for the use of extreme violence by the force, regardless of the consequences.
Interviewed by Connla Young of the Irish News, one of the youths involved said the bonfire had been an act of defiance as well as commemoration. He stayed on top during the siege which began at 5am and said he would have remained there until midnight.
“Republicans still need to be remembered, to this day there are still people in jail,” he said. “I feel like I am standing up for the republican movement, there are people who have abandoned the republican agenda.”
He accepted there were divided opinions on the bonfire. He said it had been constructed to avoid endangering nearby flats.
“The community does support the bonfire, I know not everyone supports it,” he said.
But Gerry Adams insisted the bonfire was “nothing at all to do with internment” and said any attempt to portray it as an act of republican resistance was “total nonsense”.
Referring to those involved, the former Sinn Féin leader said: “The hooliganism needs to stop, the thuggery needs to stop and this community needs to be given breathing space.”
After a party document was leaked to the media, Sinn Féin denied it had sought to manipulate tensions in the New Lodge to win votes. The prepared document called for party members to distribute thousands of leaflets condemning the bonfire builders’ “invasion” as part of a vote-building campaign.
Mr Adams said he understood the rationale PSNI had given for withdrawing from the area on Thursday, given “public safety” issues were at play. But he said the situation should never have reached that stage and the bonfire should not have been allowed to have been built in the first place.
“People here deserved to be policed properly on terms which would be acceptable,” he said. “No harm to the people of the Malone Road [a wealthy nationalist area of Belfast], but this would not have happened on the Malone Road.
“There are many republicans now on the Malone Road as well, but I just couldn’t imagine anybody trying to put pallets in some of those areas. It shouldn’t happen here in these working class neighbourhoods.”
He added: “We were part of this huge historical move and came forward to support policing, but it has to be policing with the community, and this should never ever happen again in the New Lodge or indeed anywhere else, whether it is in a so-called unionist area or a republican area – this should never happen again.”