Beacons and the hornet’s nest of bonfires

Driving into work every morning I pass a number of bonfire sites. The stacks of pallets strewn across the sites on the Donegall Road have been gradually sculpted into tall towers. It’s good to see an absence of tyres at Monarch Street. (Their bonfire suffered from being lit prematurely in 2011 and was given a Council-provided beacon and a hastily reconstructed tyre-ridden replacement bonfire.)

Bonfires have rarely been out of the news headlines in recent weeks:

Yesterday, DRD Roads Service’s Traffic Watch put out a warning to advise that the recently installed traffic lights at the back entrance of Belfast City Hospital would be switched off over the Twelfth.

TrafficWatch City Hospital

A bonfire is built each year in the fenced off land at the end of Coolfin Street. This year the pallets are stacked up at the front of the site, as far away from the houses as possible. However, one of the new traffic lights is likely to melt unless Roads Service physically remove it.

Donegall Road City Hospital bonfire

Common sense seems to disappear during the Twelfth fortnight. Bonfire constructors seem to forget how hot their fires get and how they wouldn’t like to be the person living closest to the flames. The normal societal niceties of not melting street furniture, not poisoning people with the fumes from burning tyres and asking permission to build fires on other people’s land seem to disappear too.

Like many councils, Belfast City Council runs a bonfire management programme under its Good Relations Unit. Financial incentives (ie, grants for bouncy castles and entertainment etc) are used as levers to address health and safety concerns (eg, promising not to burn tyres) and make celebrations family-friendly and reconnected with “the cultural significance of bonfires”, and avoiding burning flags.

Small beacons and larger frame constructions (5m tall reusable pyramids filled with sustainable willow and placed on a heat shield bed of sand) are offered as alternatives to the traditional bonfires.

BCC beacons bonfires stats

Within Belfast City Council’s area, there are expected to be just short of 80 bonfires lit tomorrow evening. Just over half of bonfire sites now participate in the Belfast City Council bonfire management programme. Over the past three years there has been a small but steady increase in the number of sites taking part in the BCC programme. However, around 40% of sites are still not involved. (The figures above are for Eleventh night festivities and exclude beacons/bonfires in August or Halloween.)

Belfast City Council comment:

So far [in 2013] groups have complied with the guidelines for participation in the programme. Where there have been issues such as illegal fly-tipping/dumping at sites, we have dealt with these. For example, tyres which were dumped on the Lower Shankill community last week were unwanted by the community and removed and disposed of by the Council.

Over at the King George V Playing Fields two summer’s ago I spoke to the bonfire organiser Rob about their approach and rejection of the council scheme.

The Belfast Telegraph quotes Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig (DUP) commenting on the need for cross-departmental cooperation to address the issue of bonfires:

No Government department will touch the [issue of] bonfire sites. They see it as a hornets’ nest. Some of the departments see it as unsolvable … We are walking away from the communities on these issues.

With the DUP occupying the positions of First Minister, Minister of Health, Social Services & Public Safety (overseeing the NI Fire & Rescue Service) , Minister for Social Development (overseeing urban regeneration as well as the NIHE on whose land many bonfires are built) and the Minister of Finance and Personnel, that should be a good start to address some of the burning issues.

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