The ‘festival of hate’ around the anti-Catholic July 12 marches across the North every year may be rechristened the ‘festival of stupidity’ after two giant bonfires toppled over into a crowd and two others resulted in serious injuries to bonfire builders.
Amid scenes of pyromania for ‘the Eleventh’, a loyalist youth was left fighting for his life after suffering burns to his face and body.
A 17-year-old is in a critical condition after taking part in the bonfire in Ballysillan in north Belfast. His family requested that his name not be revealed to the public after a video emerged of him pouring petrol on the bonfire in north Belfast on Sunday night.
Footage emerged on social media of the incident in which the young man became engulfed in flames and ran blindly away, suffering severe burns. The victim was seen running ablaze through onlookers while onlookers can be heard shouting “drop and roll”.
Concerns had been raised about the proximity of the Ballysillan bonfire to local homes, but when the PSNI police was consulted, they refused to get involved on the basis there was criminal activity by loyalist paramilitaries in the area.
Instead, 20 houses in the area were provided with protective boarding to reduce heat damage and te bonfire was allowed to go ahead.
Elsewhere, a bonfire builder had to be airlifted and hospitalised after falling from an unfinished pyre on Friday night.
And thousands of flaming pallets smashed to the ground in Portadown on Sunday night after a huge pyre fell into the crowd, forcing adults and children to flee.
The huge structure was built at Corcrain and topped with the Irish tricolour and a hate effigy before it all toppled over while fully ablaze.
A video showed scores of people including young children screaming as the inferno plummeted the ground. In another clip, cars can be seen attempting to drive away as the structure toppled.
Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Duffy said it was a miracle no one was killed or seriously injured, and said the imagery was “deeply concerning”.
“It’s long past time the PSNI, Housing Executive and other statutory agencies took their responsibilities seriously and stop acquiescing to the organisers of these dangerous events before someone is killed.”
A similar bonfire fell to the ground at Craigyhill in Larne on Sunday night as a large crowd of spectators looked on. Most of the 17,000 pallets used to build the structure, which dominated the coastal town’s skyline and was known as the ‘Leaning Tower of Larne’, came crashing down but onlookers were uninjured.
Mid and East Antrim Sinn Féin councillor James McKeown said the Larne bonfire was built on council land.
“For any other event on council ground there would be stringent health and safety enforcement but when it comes to bonfires council seems to have very little say on what goes on,” he said.
After decades of ignoring sectarian hate crimes at the increasingly large bonfires, there is new pressure on the Stormont administration to finally call a halt to the scenes on the basis of public safety alone.
The land used for most of the bonfires is owned or leased by local councils.
Irish nationalist posters and banners from justice campaigns were among the hundreds of offensive items symbolically burned on the bonfires.
Among those burned in effigy this year included Stormont Junior Minister Declan Kearney, the Sinn Féin official most associated with the party’s ‘unionist outreach’ programme.
The events demonstrate the need for the regulation, according to Sinn Féin north Belfast representative Gerry Kelly. He said it was “totally unacceptable to put people’s lives, homes and the environment at risk”.
Mr Kelly said there could have been “catastrophic” consequences after the collapse of the bonfire in Portadown.
“There is also an onus on police and statutory agencies to recognise their existing responsibilities to keep communities safe and to uphold the rule of law without fear or favour,” he said.
“The sectarian hate crime which has accompanied many of these bonfires must end and in 2021 there can be no tolerance of attacks on people’s homes at interfaces. That is not culture.”
PSNI ‘NOT IN CONTROL’
The most controversial event saw threats by the unionist paramilitary UDA ensure a bonfire in north Belfast went ahead at a sectarian interface. The Tiger’s Bay bonfire proceeded as planned on the interface with the nationalist New Lodge after a legal bid by Stormont Ministers to force the PSNI to move it was refused by a judge.
The legal challenge has drawn attention to the immense power still retained by criminal unionist paramilitaries in the North of Ireland.
The events reinforced the belief that the PSNI are “not in control” of some loyalist districts in the Belfast area, said Irish News commentator Brian Feeney.
“What happened in Tiger’s Bay creates a serious precedent. The police publicly caved in to violence and the threat of violence – that’s the reason they gave – from local loyalists.
“On many previous occasions the police have given in to loyalists, but previously they haven’t admitted they yielded to intimidation.”
Stormont deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill blamed reports that the UDA had moved weapons into the area for the PSNI’s refusal to move the bonfire.
“Why is it acceptable to anyone in this day and age that their threat is more dominant than the rights of the citizens being attacked in these areas,” she said.
“I think it absolutely incredulous that the UDA threats mean that this bonfire in the first place is facilitated and also that if the UDA threatens the PSNI, they won’t uphold the law. That is not acceptable.”
The bonfire featured an ominous warning ‘Remove at your own risk’ and was burned with an Irish national flag on top. While the siting of the bonfire was undoubtedly intended to provoke sectarian tensions, it failed to do so.
However, it was personally visited by DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, UUP leader Doug Beattie and TUV leder Jim Allister. The endorsement of the three main unionist leaders pointed to the continuing links between political unionism and the loyalist crime gangs who organise the bonfires.
North Belfast Sinn Féin MLA Carál Ní Chuilín said that everybody in New Lodge was disappointed with the outcome.
“The PSNI have just told people in the New Lodge to suck it up basically, and I don’t think that’s good enough,” said Ms Ní Chuilín.
“I believe the PSNI and other statutory bodies have failed in their duty to residents in this area.
“No one is denying anyone a celebration of their culture, as long as it’s done with respect.”