Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has appealed for calm amid tensions around the lighting of a loyalist bonfire near an interface area in Belfast.
Ms O’Neill said the siting of the bonfire at Adam Street in Tiger’s Bay in the north of the city had led to residents in the nearby nationalist New Lodge area living “under siege”.
Two Stormont ministers, Nichola Mallon of the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey, launched proceedings against the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over its decision not to intervene on the bonfire.
The police declined to offer protection to removal contractors, citing concerns that their intervention could lead to disorder.
The ministers’ bid to compel the police to act failed at emergency High Court proceedings on Friday.
The bonfire is now set to be lit on Sunday night as part of traditional “Eleventh Night” events in the interface area, where nationalist and unionist residential neighbourhoods adjoin.
Ms O’Neill told the BBC Sunday Politics show that the two ministers had been “absolutely right” to challenge the police in court.
She said: “It is disappointing to see the outcome of the court ruling but I do think it was absolutely the right thing to do.
“Bonfires are illegal, they are bad for the environment and they were trespassing on government-owned land so the ministers have a duty to uphold the law.
“Everybody is entitled to celebrate their culture, but this bonfire is on an interface area; that draws all the heightened tension. I met with the residents and they feel under siege, their homes have been attacked and that is not acceptable in this day and age.
“Putting a bonfire on an interface area does beg the question is it there only to antagonise?”
Responding to reports in The Sunday Times that loyalist paramilitary group the UDA had brought weapons into the area, Ms O’Neill said: “Why is it acceptable to anyone in this day and age that their threat is more dominant than the rights of the citizens that are being attacked in these areas?”
The Sinn Fein deputy First Minister said all political leaders needed to work to ensure that tensions did not boil over in the coming days.
She said: “I hope it is a peaceful weekend, I hope it is a calm weekend. All of us in political leadership have a duty to try to ensure that is the case.
“I would call on everyone, enjoy your celebrations, do what it is that you do to enjoy your culture but there is no room for attacking people’s homes. I just hope we have a weekend that we are not looking at the scenes we witnessed a number of weeks ago when we saw tensions in interface areas, none of us want to see that.
“My message is clear, stay home, don’t be involved in street disorder, that is not where anybody should be.”
Unionist political representatives in north Belfast have said that the Tiger’s Bay bonfire is a legitimate expression of their culture and have accused nationalist politicians of raising tensions in the area.
Meanwhile, bonfires will be lit across Northern Ireland on Sunday night as traditional “Eleventh Night” celebrations get under way.
More than 160 pyres are expected to be ignited to usher in the main date in the Protestant loyal order parading season – the Twelfth of July.
Because July 11 falls on a Sunday this year, a number of bonfires have already been lit on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Fire service appliances were in attendance as a huge fire in the Corcrain area of Portadown was set alight on Saturday night. Firefighters worked to dampen down nearby properties.
The “Eleventh Night” bonfires precede the Twelfth of July parades, which will take place on Monday at 100 locations across Northern Ireland.
Last year’s parades were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings.
The Orange Order has said the parades this summer will be smaller than usual and locally based, with the normal 18 main events replaced by more than 100 local parades.
The Order said organising smaller parades was the best way to ensure the demonstrations went ahead.
The Twelfth parades mark the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, in 1690 – a triumph that secured a Protestant line of succession to the British Crown.