The Bishop of Derry has said he is “angry” following the lighting of a controversial bonfire in Londonderry and blamed “tribal politics by larger parties” in Northern Ireland for ongoing sectarianism – saying the finger should not be pointed at young people.
ishop Donal McKeown was speaking the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme after a pyre, an annual event in Derry’s Bogside, was lit shortly after 10.30pm on Monday night.
The Meenan Square blaze bore poppy wreaths and an image of the Queen blowing chewing gum.
Fireworks were also placed on the top of the Bogside bonfire along with Union flags, an image of a PSNI Land Rover and a Parachute Regiment flag.
The annual bonfire drew a few thousand people to the area, with cars also parked on nearby flyover and along the side of the road.
Bishop McKeown told BBC Radio Ulster that in Derry, people have been trying to build bridges rather than walls.
He said: “Sectarianism is an iceberg, just because there’s a little tip there that we like to condemn doesn’t mean there’s not a huge underbelly of other sectarian attitudes, others tensions in society that perhaps big tribalism parties like to benefit from.”
Bishop McKeown was reluctant to condemn the actions of a small number of people as sectarianism in Northern Ireland “benefits” power struggles that are going on.
“It is the responsibility of all of us to build a shared future. That means being honest about where sectarianism actually benefits tribalism in the part of large parties,” he said.
“That’s tough for me to say but I’m angry this morning if we actually only condemn a few young people and actually miss the point that sectarianism is much more widespread than we want to admit.”
It is a contentious time in NI politics and around the world, Bishop McKeown told the BBC, whereby “confrontation seems to be the order of the day and people say they will ‘x’ in the future if only we can win this battle – and if there’s uncertainty, if there’s tension, if there’s a vacuum in the middle then somebody will fill that.”
He concluded: “Everyone has to be involved in building a shared future. Those who foment confrontation as a political weapon bear part of the responsibility for what happened at the bonfire last night and other events over the weekend.”
MLA Gary Middleton of the DUP said it’s clear the poppy wreaths placed on the bonfire were stolen and that has caused huge offence. He said the bonfire was “disgraceful” and the burning of flags, poppy wreaths and emblems is a “race to the bottom”. “It takes a sick and twisted mind to do that.”
Responding to Bishop McKeown’s comments, he said his party “doesn’t take any satisfaction” from items burned on bonfires. “There’s clearly an element of people putting young people up to this type of behaviour. There is an onus on all of us to show leadership within our communities. Culture can be celebrated – without sticking a needle in the eye of the other community.”
The controversy around the bonfire comes after the sale of Parachute Regiment flags at parade in Derry was described as a “setback” for community relations.
Mr Middleton said the recent Apprentice Boys parade was a success. “Of course we were made aware there was a stall selling flags,” he said. “The bit that’s infuriating, particularly unionists, is the lack of condemnation of up to 10,000 people chanting “up the RA” at a festival over the weekend. Until that activity is condemned, we’re going to see an escalation of these types of issues on bonfires.”
Sinead McLaughlin of the SDLP said the PSNI have been monitoring the bonfire. “Unfortunately we’ve had a really difficult weekend, where Parachute Regiment flags were sold during the Apprentice Boys parade. It makes it unlikely that we can build a shared island,” she said.
She added: “Last night was enormously disrespectful for everybody trying to build that shared community. It doesn’t represent the people of the Bogside or the people of Derry.
The current political vacuum has driven division she said. “When you continually undermine that, you will drive division,” she said.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on Monday described the bonfire, before it was lit, as an “outrageous and offensive display of hate” and said: “It should be universally rejected.”
He added: “When this generation is told there was no alternative to violence, this is the result.
“[It is] time Michelle O’Neill gave leadership and opposed this hatred. There was always an alternative to killing people.”
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said there is a responsibility on organisers of August bonfires to ensure there are no displays of hate.
The party’s policing spokesperson said: “There is an onus on the organisers of the small number of August 15th bonfires to ensure they pass off peacefully and without displays of hatred.
“There can be no repeat of the images on some loyalist bonfires in July which were blatant displays of hate and sectarianism.
“There is no place for the burning of flags, posters and effigies on bonfires anywhere in our society.
“Anyone involved in the organisation of these bonfires should ensure that is the case.”
Bonfires on August 15 are traditional in some nationalist parts of Northern Ireland to mark the Catholic Feast of the Assumption.
Others light the bonfires to commemorate the introduction of internment without trial of republican suspects, which was introduced by the government in 1971.