Here we are again. Another ‘Bonfire Season’ has come upon us and the unedifying spectacle of disregard of these fires’ impact on the environment; on our economy and on our community relations has been met with the usual head-shaking and hand-wringing by statutory agencies.
The SDLP believe that there should be no bonfires at all. We believe that the cost of this practice far outweighs any notional benefits or reinforcement of ‘culture’.
How the naked displays of hatred such as the burning of flags,posters and effigies that has become synonymous with bonfires here, can be and are tolerated and ,in many cases, facilitated is baffling to many people, here and much further afield.
During my tenure as Environment Minister I brought forward genuine and well- meaning proposals to tackle this perennial problem. While my own opinion is in favour of an outright ban, I did recognise that ,realistically, an outright ban was not achievable and maybe even counter-productive in the short term. Therefore, I offered the suggestion of a licensing scheme for bonfires. Such a scheme would enable much better management of a clearly unmanaged situation. By insisting on compliance with regulations, councils along with the other relevant agencies such as NIEA, Emergency Services,NIHE ,community groups and others, would be in a much stronger position to control the location, scale and nature of these fires.
Groups who wish to comply would do so by building fires in areas that posed no risk to public safety, didn’t emit harmful toxic fumes into neighbourhoods and, of course, did not use the occasion as an opportunity to attack or intimidate other communities through sick sectarian gestures.
Resources would then be freed up to tackle those who refuse to comply.
Sadly, local councils chose not to accept my proposals and opted instead to continue down their ‘traditional route’ of working with communities and other agencies in a hand-holding manner which, while it has yielded a reduction in the number of fires,has seen an increased focus on their scale and controversy.
It is only right that our media plays a role in holding agencies to account for their inaction, but I do believe that the obsession of some reporters with the situation actually adds fuel to the fire. The notoriety and attention craved by some is lapped up and churned out over our airwaves.
The current poisonous political atmosphere is also not helping. Some seem more entrenched than ever and the complete absence of real unionist political will to address bonfires, suggests not merely a tolerance of the associated hate crimes but an implicit encouragement of them.
I have, on many occasions, spoken to young bonfire builders in nationalist estates in Derry whose response to attempts (sometimes successful) to persuade them not to inflict this damage on their own communities is often along the lines of ‘sure the Protestants get to do it’.
It is vital that all people here are educated as to the impact of these actions ; the dangers, the financial cost of clean-ups and the fear and potential harm caused to many residents and the wider environment.
It is fascinating to see the effort, application and skill with which young people from both backgrounds plan and construct these pyres.
Would it not be great to channel these attributes into positive actions, building better futures not building bigger fires?