A Derry councillor has described as “worrying” a heightening of tensions in the city ahead of bonfire season.
In recent weeks hostilities have broken out following the erection of banners and flags in support of soldier F, the man accused of murdering James Wray and William McKinney when the Parachute Regiment opened fire on civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972.
East Derry MP Gregory Campbell also released a video on Facebook where he states that if cherry pickers are going to be deployed to remove soldier F banners, then “JCBs are going to be deployed in Dungiven” where a “shrine to terror” has been built next to a Protestant church.
And there have been disagreements in council between unionist and nationalist factions around the issue.
The timing is a cause for concern particularly against the backdrop of prolonged violence at the same time last year when young people engaged in six consecutive days of rioting and shots were fired at the police.
Yesterday, Sinn Féin Cllr Sandra Duffy appealed to businesses throughout the city and district not to allow wooden pallets, tyres and building materials to be used for bonfires.
It comes following reports of young people accessing business premises to acquire pallets and other material for bonfires.
She is on the bonfire working group in Council is conscious of rising “tensions” which she feels could filter down to youths and influence their decision-making.
However, community workers have been encouraging youths to invest their energy in more positive activities.
“Over the last two weeks we have seen a rise in tensions, over the flags issue and I’ve seen a video circulating on social media today from Gregory (Campbell), so I would worry that tensions are high.
“But in terms of the Lecky Road bonfire in particular, there has been really good work done with the community and the young people involved.
“I know from talking to a lot of the youth workers in the area that they have engaged the young people that were involved last year and have them focused on youth work and other activities to divert them away from that.
“They are confident enough that the young people involved last year aren’t going to be about.
“The site has also been secured by the new owner so what happened there last year is not going to happen.”
She recognised that if antagonistic items are placed on The Fountain bonfire then it could provoke a response in the Bogside on August 15: “Young people in the nationalist community would say, ‘they’re allowed to put flags up, why aren’t we?’ There are individual negotiations taking place in all communities, around all bonfires, around all flags.
“I know the bonfire coordinator in council is negotiating with communities around having no flags or emblems if bonfires are going to be built and that there will be no tyres on them. There’s a lot of work going on so that if people are having bonfires it’s not offensive and it’s not illegal.”
In terms of the Gasyard Féile, the Sinn Féin councillor explained that the intention is for the festival to occupy additional space at Free Derry Corner as part of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside.
“It’s not that people are opposed to bonfires but if a local community is clearly saying that it doesn’t want a bonfire then people need to respond to that.
“In the Fountain they haven’t really come out to speak against it whereas in the Bogside local residents have come out to say they don’t want it in their community. They don’t want to see the burning of poppy wreaths, they don’t want to see the burning of election posters, they don’t want it in the heart of their community.
“They would rather have a family fun festival around that time.”
Meanwhile, Independent Councillor for the Moor Gary Donnelly is aware of ongoing talks behind the scenes which he described as “very fragile”.
“There’s a bonfire working group that was set-up on July 4th. There are some young people intent on having a bonfire and there are people working behind the scenes to get a handle on it.
“I don’t see any benefit to bonfires, they can be toxic in a number of senses, to the environment and toxic to cohesion within the community, and that is not just across the sectarian divide, but it can affect inter-community tensions.”
Ambiguous messages about “good and bad” bonfires only adds to the confusion and heightens tensions, he believes.
“But I don’t believe prohibition works either, in the recent past there was a good bonfire and a bad bonfire, and that sends out the wrong message to young people too.
“There needs to be a lot of work done with the young people involved and I think saying the bonfire in The Fountain is okay and that one a couple of hundred yards away in the Bogside isn’t. The same smoke that comes from the Fountain goes into the surrounding areas also.
“Young people pick up on this, they feel people are being aided and abetted in The Fountain which leads to negativity amongst the youth and a sense of alienation.”
He continued: “I would like to see a day when there are no bonfires whatsoever but I understand that it is a very sensitive issue and if you go in with a sledgehammer to these things they can be very divisive and lead to further tensions within the community.
“I personally seen people building bonfires in the Fountain and the police standing along with them. And also witnessed a couple of years ago when the cops came in the Bogside at 7 o’clock in the morning, some masked up and armed to the teeth in land rovers, and they started pushing young people on to the ground and that.
“So I’ve seen a difference in attitude which again all feeds in to alienation with young people so we need a sensible and inclusive approach to dealing with bonfires.
Photo: The Fountain estate yesterday morning where police spoke to bonfire builders.
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