We do not have clear and equal policing

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By Fra Hughes

When is a bonfire not a bonfire? Apparently when it’s being built by antisocial elements hell-bent on destroying their own community, endangering lives and property while putting their own selfish interests before that of society.

That is the rationale being used to remove nationalist bonfires.

The recent heavy-handedness of the police in removing bonfire material from Divis exemplifies the hypocrisy of the state, local political representatives and those who claim to be fighting for equality within our community.

Having witnessed on social media the police deployment into the Divis area in full riot gear, with a military-style operation, saturating Albert Street and the surrounding streets with armoured vehicles to remove what is, in essence, a small insignificant bonfire, when we compare this to their actions in respect of the huge provocative bonfire on the Tigers Bay, Duncairn Garden, New Lodge Road, North Queen Street interface we can see a seismic shift in attitude. The optics do not look good for the police.

In a gigantic undertaking whereby loyalism was allowed to build a significant sized bonfire on an interface, to weld shut gates that allowed entrance onto the road, where police at times actually appeared be protecting the bonfire and the state and others fully facilitate this illegal edifice, through the abdication of its duties to remove it, the question must be asked, how far has the state of Northern Ireland actually come in the 21st century?

As I witnessed the police removal of the bonfire material from Divis, I was struck by the comparison with the removal of the ‘Tricolour’ from Divis in 1964 leading to four nights of street disturbances known as the ‘Tricolour Riots’ during that year’s elections for Parliament.

The flag had been placed in the window of the Republican party offices in Divis who were running a candidate.

The Tricolour at that time was banned under the ‘flags and emblems act’ and was seen by loyalists, unionists and the state, to be highly provocative.

When Ian Paisley called on thousands of Protestants to descend on Belfast City Hall in protest, the Police moved in and forcibly removed the offending flag.

Being unable to gain entrance to the building the Royal Ulster Constabulary simply broke the window, made several arrests, removed the flag and through their actions ignited four nights of serious street disorder.

Now in 2020, we have the police storming Divis again.

This time the rationale is not the threat of public disorder by loyalism led by a firebrand political and pseudo-religious preacher, but on the pretext that the bonfire is illegal and unwanted by the local population and as such it is within their prerogative under the right ‘to protect the community’ presumably from itself, to remove it.

Bonfires must be removed because they are illegal. They must not be tolerated.

Excuses must not be made by those who build them nor accepted by the state or the media or our elected representatives.

Bonfires in and of themselves become a magnet for drunken anti-social behaviour with their attendant sectarian and race hate messages.

While unionist -loyalist bonfires are facilitated by local councils, the Departments of Justice and Infrastructure, the police and other quasi-official bodies, there will be calls and demands from young nationalists and others to have reciprocal bonfires.

The cowardice and complicity shown by the state towards loyalist bonfires and the violent intolerant attitude displayed towards nationalist bonfires, prove for all to see that sectarianism and discrimination are still the foundations of the state.

Unionist-loyalist bonfires are not only facilitated but celebrated by the state.

The only differences that I can see between the removal of the Tricolour in 1964 and the removal of the bonfire material in 2020 is a time gap of 56 years and in the former instance, Sinn Féin was fully against the provocative police actions in removing the ‘Tricolour’ yet in the latter example Sinn Féin is fully acquiescent if not endorsing the removal of the bonfire material by a group many still see as an unreformed, partisan, colonial militia, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

In Derry, in August there are normally huge bonfires related to the’ Siege of Derry ‘. There are no demands from Nationalist -Republican politicians to ban them, no calls for police and contractors to remove the illegal material, just a total capitulation, and abdication of responsibility by the state in the face of perceived loyalist threats.

The State has not fundamentally changed but sections of the Republican movement have.

They are now part of the establishment endorsing this sectarian discrimination.

While Ian Paisley may be no longer be with us, there are others who carry on his unionist legacy such as former unionist politician now Lord Kilclooney member of the British House Lords who tweeted:

“The Irish Republican violence in West and North Belfast cannot be tolerated. It is a total rejection of everything that John Hume promoted. I hope that the PSNI identifies those responsible and successfully prosecutes them!”

The violence, arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations are all avoidable if we have clear and equal policing of both sides of the divide to include managing illegal bonfires.

Unfortunately, we have neither!

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