Speaking ahead of tonight’s meeting of Belfast City Council, Cllr Naomi Long MLA, leader of the Alliance Party Grouping in City Hall, said that the issue of bonfires is a true test of whether Unionists are prepared to be unambiguous in their support for cultural expression without paramilitary involvement.
Cllr Long indicated that Alliance will not support the roll out of the Bonfire Pilot Scheme unless the site at Pitt Park is excluded for the coming year. Noting the unwillingness of Unionists to heed the independent advice that Pitt Park should be excluded from the scheme following a paramilitary show of strength at the site last July, she said this could place the entire scheme in jeopardy.
She said, “Alliance supported this bonfire initiative last year in the hope that it would offer local communities a way of celebrating their culture in a less destructive, disruptive and divisive way. It was a genuine attempt by the Council to tackle an issue which costs ratepayers a considerable sum of money every year.
“The agreement with each site included a clear undertaking that there would be a significant reduction in paramilitary displays at the sites and that there would be no paramilitary “shows of strength”. Whilst we recognise that none of the sites were perfect, many showed a vast improvement when compared to the previous year.
“However, at Pitt Park this was not the case. Whilst there was co-operation with the Council in the early stages of the scheme in relation to fly-tipping and removal of tyres, in the immediate run up to the 11th July, the number of paramilitary flags multiplied dramatically and was significantly higher than in previous years. On the night of the bonfire itself there was a significant paramilitary “show of strength”, involving a volley of shots fired by masked gun-men.
“For us this is not a grey area. It was in outright defiance of the agreement with Council and under these circumstances we cannot support the inclusion of Pitt Park in the scheme this year. To ignore what happened and do nothing would simply send out a message that the agreements with the Council are meaningless and would lead to an escalation of such displays rather than a reduction, which was the whole point of the scheme in the first place.
“Last year we supported giving people an opportunity to move things on, but by choosing to have this show of strength at the site, the paramilitaries squandered it on their behalf.
“Alliance has offered a sensible and reasonable way forward, that the scheme go ahead with the exclusion of Pitt Park for one year. We have also indicated that if things improve this year, they could be considered for re-inclusion in future years. This way we ensure that those who largely stuck by their word to the Council are encouraged to continue making progress and that, where it clearly didn’t work last year, people are still given the opportunity to get back on the scheme when they rebuild trust with the Council in their ability to deliver on their promises.
“The refusal of unionists to accept the advice of those who independently assessed the scheme and take action against what was a flagrant breach of the agreements at Pitt Park and could result in the entire scheme being aborted. In defending the indefensible they are jeopardising the good work done in other areas and ensuring that everyone loses.”