Northern Ireland

Belfast homes boarded up ahead of Eleventh Night bonfire

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Media captionCulture and controversy - loyalist bonfires in Northern Ireland

A number of homes close to a large bonfire in east Belfast have been boarded up to protect the properties from heat damage when the fire is lit.

The controversial bonfire is in a public car park at Ravenscroft Avenue, off the Newtownards Road.

It is one of four Belfast bonfires that are the subject of court injunctions, sought to prevent them getting bigger.

Meanwhile, police are investigating complaints about "distasteful" materials placed on bonfires.

Image caption Concerns have been raised about the height of the Ravenscroft Avenue bonfire

Traditionally, bonfires are lit in many loyalist areas of Northern Ireland on the Eleventh Night of July.

They mark the start of the annual commemoration of William of Orange's victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

However, some bonfires have caused controversy because they are built close to family homes and pose a risk to health and safety.

'Theft and burning'

On Tuesday, Sinn Féin's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said the burning of flags and election posters on bonfires was a "hate crime".

She called on the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to take steps against the practice.

Image caption Housing Executive staff boarded up the windows of five homes near the Ravenscroft Avenue bonfire

"Once again, we have witnessed bonfires across the north being festooned with stolen Sinn Féin election posters, Irish national flags and other emblems," she said.

"The theft and burning of posters from any party as well as flags, effigies and other symbols is not culture, it is a hate crime."

John Finucane, who ran unsuccessfully for Sinn Féin in the June general election, has said the Orange Order needed to do more to address the burning of flags and posters on bonfires.

Speaking after his election posters appeared on a bonfire near Conway Street in Belfast, Mr Finucane said it was "wrong" and "a hate crime".

Pictures have also emerged on social media of a bonfire in east Belfast draped with a banner carrying a racist message directed at Celtic footballer Scott Sinclair.

Image caption The Housing Executive said it was stepping in to protect houses close to the bonfire

In a statement, the PSNI said: "Police are investigating complaints about various materials, some of which are clearly distasteful, placed on the bonfire.

"Where police are aware of a crime being committed, an investigation will follow.

"We take hate crime very seriously and actively investigate all incidents reported to us," it added.

'Need for respect'

The Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster said: "Bonfires on the Eleventh Night have long been part of the unionist culture.

"Those who have waged a campaign of demonisation against such celebrations should dial down the rhetoric.

Image caption A banner carrying a racist message about Celtic footballer Scott Sinclair was draped on a bonfire

"To those who build bonfires, I urge them to not play into the hands of those who want to demonise the culture - they should be respectful of their neighbours.

"Endangering property and lives should not be a concern for residents on the Eleventh Night," she added.

Progressive Unionist Party councillor John Kyle said there are "real issues with some bonfires" and steps need to be taken when property and lives are put at risk.

But he added: "Let's see the broader picture - if we are going to create a future that is peaceful, that is prosperous, then there needs to be respect.

"Two of the major casualties of the past 18 months have been trust and respect, there is now no trust, or very little trust, between unionism and republicanism or nationalism.

"There is very little respect being felt, particularly by loyalists, they feel continually disrespected and undermined," he added.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption The Carrickfergus bonfire was built with hundreds of wooden pallets

Earlier on Tuesday, fire crews dealt with a large bonfire in Carrickfergus in County Antrim that was set alight prematurely.

Assistant chief fire officer Alan Walmsley said firefighters were called to the scene at about 05:30 BST on Tuesday.

On Tuesday morning, staff from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) boarded up the windows of five homes near the Ravenscroft Avenue bonfire.

A NIHE spokesman said the five houses were privately owned, but its staff had stepped in to protect the properties.

The Ravenscroft Avenue site hit the headlines last month when it was reported that young men involved in building the bonfire had closed off the public car park.

The bonfire was set alight prematurely last week and the fire service attended to protect nearby homes and property from damage.

Image caption The Carrickfergus bonfire was set alight prematurely and was later replaced

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