The Police Service of Northern Ireland is investigating hate crimes committed at bonfires in unionist (supporters of British rule over Northern Ireland’s six counties) areas on the nights of July 11, An Phoblacht said the next day. Bonfires, which are set alight each July 11 by the members of the unionist community, were strewn with election posters for Irish republican party Sinn Fein and other non-unionist groups, as well as Irish flags and various expressions of sectarianism and bigotry.
In at least one case, a pro-marriage equality poster was burnt and in another, a banner with a racist slogan targeting a Black footballer who plays for Glasgow’s Celtic FC, which has strong support among Irish republicans.
An Phoblacht reported that a bonfire in east Belfast even featured a black coffin with an image of Martin McGuinness, the Irish republican and veteran Sinn Fein leader who died earlier this year.
It comes as hardline unionists appear emboldened by the deal between the Democratic Unionist Party and the British Conservative Party to allow a minority Conservative government at Westminster. Irish Republican News reported on July 12 that there was "an almost 50% rise in bonfire-related emergency callouts since July 11 last year as state-funded loyalist ‘Eleventh Night’ blazes damaged property and threatened lives across the North".
Firefighters were summoned to 133 emergency situations, a 49% rise in the number of incidents over the same period last year.
IRN said: "There were chaotic scenes in Belfast city centre, where residents fled one high rise development as a giant bonfire at Victoria Place looked set to engulf a building just yards away. Fire crews soaked the high-rise development for hours and succeeded in preventing a disaster, although heat damage included cracked windows and melted plastics.
"It is thought the building, which is home to a diverse and international mix of young professionals and their families, may have been deliberately targeted in an act of racism ... Before being lit, in scenes mirrored in loyalist areas across the North, symbols of Irish nationalism such as tricolours, Celtic FC banners and Sinn Fein election poster were added to the bonfire in the traditional expression of sectarian hate and intimidation...
"Firefighters were attacked as they left the scene by members of the paramilitary gang, one of those which receives Belfast City Council’s infamous grant aid for loyalists criminals ... the city council backed away from its threat to prevent four bonfires they fund in east Belfast from being increased, despite receiving a court order to permit them to intervene to limit their height. Masked gang members were photographed defying the council posing by piling on wooden pallets."
An Phoblacht reported: “Despite calls to denounce the behaviour associated with the Orange Order’s Twelfth of July celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne, the Orange Order itself and DUP MPs and MLAs who are members of the loyal orders have failed to speak out against hate crimes.”
Sinn Fein National Chairperson Declan Kearney MLA called the coffin display a “particularly sickening manifestation of hate”.
He said: “Their behaviour stands in stark contrast to the work that Martin McGuinness did to build reconciliation and reach out the hand of friendship.”
Kearney added: “It is simply unacceptable that unionist political parties still refuse to condemn this kind of hate crime.
“Rather than supporting these so-called celebrations and, in some cases, posing for photos as they light the bonfires, it is long past time that political unionism showed some leadership and called for an immediate end to these sickening displays.”
The bonfires on July 11, known as Eleventh Night, are an annual event as part of celebrations by much of the largely Protestant unionist community of the on July 12, 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant forces of William of Orange defeated the Catholic forces of King James. The battle is seen as a symbol of Protestant supremacy over the Catholic minority in the six counties.