AMANDA FERGUSON in Belfast
Monday, February 13, 2023
Beacon pic above from Groundwork: https://www.groundwork.org.uk/projects/beacons/
Every year we have the same discussions about bonfires. I have been writing and speaking about bonfires and the associated issues for more years than I care to remember.
Without fail the full spectrum of opinion is debated in the lead up to the summer so I am trying to shed a bit of light on some facts around bonfires.
In July 2022 around 250 bonfires took place. A man died, flags, effigies of female politicians, and other hate materials, were put on bonfires. I spoke to Virgin TV's Tonight Show about it at the time. You can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtuxN_zy6qE
I wrote the following story in August 2022 which details 57 hate crime/incidents were reported to the PSNI. So that's around a fifth that prompted recorded police reports. The figure could of course be higher but I can only go on reported incidents. You can read the full list here: https://www.amanda.ie/stories/july-bonfire-incidents-in-full
In recent days police advise me of the 57, revised to 54, one has been referred to the PPS.
We can tend to "overestimate or underestimate" the issues around bonfires so having some evidence is useful.
See my news story in this week's Sunday Life here: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sunday-life/news/housing-executive-burns-through-almost-300k-on-bonfires/41490464.html
You can't include everything in a newspaper story but I can put all the raw data here for you to look through.
The data I have gathered does not reflect the full extent of costs associated with bonfires but is helping to build a picture. And getting into societal benefits and costs, environmental costs and more is also going to have to be part of it but I am only one woman!
AUGUST POLICE BONFIRE INCIDENTS IN FULL
There were 38 separate reports of potential offences linked to bonfire sites during August. They are detailed in the folioing images. Potential offences included the theft and destruction of flags, wreaths and hate slogans. The PSNI is to get back to me about how many, if any, of the incidents have been referred to the PPS.
Like the July list, the August list makes for grim reading.
Back in July I was advised that five of the biggest policing operations of 2022 so far were:
I now have the costs associated with policing four of these events.
Twelfth of July = £1,300,948
Eleventh of July = £205,453
Assembly Election = £672,750
Centenary Parade = £206,481
Easter - A specific costing was not completed for Easter
The NIFRS told me in September 2022 the costs associated with bonfires were:
2022 £43,678.03 (incomplete figure)
You can read for yourself a breakdown of July and most of August bonfire related incidents for the recent bonfire season and previous years - locations, and action taken by the fire service, plus the associated costs.
It makes for fascinating reading tbh. Check out your area on the spreadsheet here:
August 2022 is not a complete month, data has been extracted for the period 01/08/2022 to 17/08/2022.
The calculations are representative of the cost of the incident to the time of release – this means that it includes the time travelling to an incident but not return to station as a crew could be mobilised directly to a new incident. Due to the nature of the information held in relation to the incidents, it has been necessary to apply assumptions in the calculation of the cost and therefore the cost is indicative. The cost is calculated based on the costs that are directly attributable to attendance
at an incident (direct staff time and fuel consumption), and does not therefore include overheads and other indirect costs such as administration; wear and tear of equipment; and command and control).
It should also be noted the NIFRS recently reviewed its costing model. The
costing for my request is based on that model. For this reason the costs may not be comparable to similar incident costings previously provided.
I have asked the fire service for the rest of August's stats. (UPDATE - there were no incidents for the rest of August).
I have been liaising with the Housing Executive since summer 2022. They got back to me with costs associated with bonfires in July and August 2022 at the end of last month. It was just short of £300,000.
Bonfire Protection cost = £127,966. This includes boarding up windows and doors, removing guttering and fascia, wooden fencing removal and reinstallment. This is for HE tenants and private tenants. The HE views protecting all houses in a street as important, as it's better to protect a house than after a fire have extra people on the housing waiting list.
Bonfire Clear Up/Repair cost = £4,320. This covers repairing the ground and windows etc.
Bonfire Debris Removal/Grass reinstatement cost = £136,378. Tyres and toxic items are higher cost to remove.
A contribution to a Council Led Bonfire Mgt Programme cost = £26,000. Diversionary events are seen as an investment in reducing anti social behaviour, moving people from bonfires to beacons, supporting communities, and other costs.
Total HE costs for 2022 = £294,664
I contacted Belfast City Council about its bonfire costs.
A statement said: “In 2022/23 Council spent approximately £50,000 on bonfire clean-up operations and provided £500,000 of funding through our Summer Community Diversionary Festivals programme (SCDF). The aim of SCDF is to reduce anti-social behaviour over the summer months while promoting positive cultural expression through community-based festivals and programmes.”
I am going to contact the 10 other councils in Northern Ireland to ask them for similar information. Give me time! There is a lot going on.
I spoke to two Belfast city councillors about the range of new stats and information outlined above.
Alliance Party councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown said: “It’s fairly depressing reading as we approach 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement that we continue to spend money dealing with the outworking of these events rather than public services which benefits people in society as a whole.
“I think most people would rather the Housing Executive built and maintained houses, and that the Fire Services spent its limited resources in better ways.
“Often people try to talk up financial benefits of bonfires but these figures show some of the direct costs incurred by public authorities.
“Alliance has previously explored private members bills as a way to regulate bonfires and ensure those which are held are conducted in an appropriate and proportionate way.
“Along side other elected representatives from my own party and others I have had my election posters burned on bonfires which can be a very unsettling experience.
“Aside from the financial cost of bonfires we know there can be injury associated with them, and there was also the tragic death of a young father last year in Larne.
“There is also the unquantified human cost of bonfires for people in society who suffer from asthma, COPD and respiratory illnesses.
“The burning of tyres and other materials risks aggravating the sick, not to mention the devastating environmental impact.
“Alliance recognises the importance of cultural tradition and would encourage people who enjoy bonfires to think about the cost to society as aswell as the enjoymenet of them.
“All traditions if they are to survive must adapt so bonfires if they are to retain their place in society then some of the worst behaviours will have to be better managed.
“We have to move to a situation where life and property isn’t risked and the cost to the public purse is minimised.”
SDLP Councillor Carl Whyte said: “As well as being directly responsible for death and severe injury at sites across the North, illegal bonfires are resulting in hundreds of call-outs for Police, Fire Service and Housing Executive every year which in turn is costing thousands of pounds.
"While legal beacons can play an important role in celebrating cultural events, it is clear that the annual construction of illegal bonfires are a significant and growing drain on the public purse.
"Despite all of this, and the multiple laws and regulations regularly broken by illegal bonfire builders, the agencies and departments who could prosecute offenders - including the NIEA, DAERA, NIHE, local councils and DFI - very rarely do so.
"Until we see offenders prosecuted for offenses for which they would be prosecuted if they took place any other time of year - then these bonfires are likely to become an even bigger drain on public expenditure."
QUB Professor Dominic Bryan told me giving space for bonfires is "a reasonable thing to do” however "there are some we have to have a common sense look at it, and say you can’t have a bonfire here".
“All the criticism of all of this is valid but when you look at practicalities it’s not that easy to come up with alternatives. “Saying no to bonfires isn’t a realistic alternative. It’s important to say they are complex events. They also provide local areas with social cohesion.”
The former chair of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT), who has academic expertise in social anthropology and areas exploring rituals, symbols and group identity, commemorations, conflict transformation and political violence, said it was extremely useful to have new data on the subject because every year there is a tendency to "overestimate or underestimate" the extent of any issues.
“We have no choice but to keep working on the roughly one fifth that are a problem because I don’t think you can police it out. You have to persuade people.”
He says part of that pleasure of an event such as the Notting Hill Carnival is that it is given space for people to get away with what you usually wouldn't.
When compared with bonfires he said: "What is the same is the sense that local people have a sense of control in an area. Often boys and men. Within that they can get away with things, and part of that is partying. At one level it isn’t political and in others it is. There is a sense it falls into the category of carnivalesque. Much of it is about a personal sense of enjoyment and control. There is racism and sectarianism among some."
Professor Bryan explains in anthropology when we look at events you can look at it as a script – look at the flags and ask what is it saying, but it is complex.
"The reality is there is a sense of coming together. When you ask some people why they are doing it they aren’t going to tell you the text. You can feel a sense of awe. It’s about social cohesion, belonging, bonding and identity. In events there is the mixture of those two things going on. And some people find that so difficult to comprehend. It is also about drinking and partying and meeting friends and socialising and a way of life.
"It can be both sectarian and political, and also a sense of cohesion and belonging and identity"
On the cost to the public purse and any benefits Professor Bryan light heartedly remarks that the Twelfth of July "is good for tourism is you are the Donegal tourist board" (referencing the fact so many people make a break for the border over the Twelfth festivities).
"I do think any society has a duty to create space so public events can take place. If you take the example of the Notting Hill Carnival you can argue that it is justified as a right to hold it, freedom of assembly, but also a good of society and good economically.
"Over here it is a much more marginal position.
"You have a right to freedom of assembly and to express yourself and it is the state duty to give access to that, and you can see a social good.
"However they have to be balanced against the costs.
"You can make an argument that by managing events you are saving money."
Why can't they all be beacons?
Professor Bryan said: "The story unionism and loyalism tells itself is that these bonfires come from beacons that lit King William’s way so there is some irony that a lot of people are dismissive of beacons. I think they work. They are quite impressive, environmentally friendly, and you could reasonably put sand down and put them down roads.
"Some people hate them because they are more controlled and lose the carnivalesque. Young people love that and paramilitaries use and abuse it. There is also competition between paramilitaries and some bonfires are built to ridiculous sizes."
Diversionary funds are viewed by some as a waste of money and by others as an investment and ultimately a cost saver.
Professor Bryan said: "I am all down for creating festivals in communities. That local sense of cohesion is important and you don’t want to rip that away from communities.
"The debate has to be had. There needs to be a degree of honesty. It is true some people overestimate and other underestimate the issues.
"There is quite a bit of good work going on but definitely problems that need sorting out.
"Change is taking place all the time. As a policy argument you have to be try to be masters of that change."
You can read the FICT report chapter on bonfires here: https://www.executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk/publications/commission-flags-identity-culture-and-tradition-final-report
That's all for now folks! I think I will also explore bonfire related injuries, and other costs. Get in touch with any ideas.
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