BETWEEN Cullingtree Road and the Westlink in the Divis area of West Belfast is a pathway where hundreds of wooden pallets have been gathered in preparation for the annual internment bonfire.They’ve been collected by a large group of young people from the Divis area, in their early to late teens, who obtained them by visiting businesses up and down the road and asking for wood.
The youths have built a makeshift hut at the site of the contentious bonfire to shelter from the elements and to guard against their wood being stolen by bonfire-builders from other areas.
The young people agreed to talk to the Andersonstown News to tell us why they go on building the bonfire in the face of opposition from local residents and politicians who see it as an excuse for anti-social behaviour.
Gerard Fitzpatrick, 21, is from Divis and works as a volunteer youth worker in the area. Two years ago Gerard applied successfully to Belfast City Council’s Bonfire Management Programme for funding of events around the Divis bonfire to make it more community friendly. However, for the past two years his funding applications have been turned down and the money is now targeted at diversionary activities away from the bonfires.
“We felt it was a successful event that year and we had hoped to carry it on in the years after,” said Gerard. “This year the Council requested a meeting with us about the bonfire, but it was made clear that they had no interest in giving any funds towards it. There’s been money allocated to the Falls Youth Providers to put on diversionary activities such as a white collar boxing event and a football tournament. But why give the fire bad publicity? The young people here today are genuine about making it a community event.”
The young people said they are persevering with the bonfire as they see it as a “tradition”, but add that building a bonfire “gives us something to do”.
“Would they rather have us down here collecting wood or out there terrorising people, or whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing when we’re not?” asked Seán Sharkey. “There’s nothing else for young people to do here. We look forward to this all year round.”
“They’re making so many cuts in the community sector,” added Gerard. “Integrated Services is going, that’s who I work for, and that’s not the only place being cut.”
The youths agree that the spectacle of a bonfire and thousands of people standing around might be seen as intimidating by many locals. However, they claim that the people who complain usually end up attending the event themselves.
“Every single year they are out standing around the fire with their drink cheering it on,” said Pearse McAuley. “The people against it are there every year without fail. There are 2,000-plus every year at this and the majority of them are from this area. Sure we’re doing no-one any harm.”
We asked the group what they wanted to say to locals opposed to the bonfire.
“Come and talk to me and I’ll have the conversation directly with them. I want to speak to them face-to-face rather than through the paper,” said Gerard. “This is a small minority of people who say it attracts anti-social behaviour. We leafleted every house in Divis two years ago about a meeting we were holding on the bonfire then, and those who turned up were in support of it and in favour of making it a more community-based and family friendly event.”
The young people feel strongly that they receive a bad press in the Belfast media, particularly in the pages of the Andersonstown News.
“The likes of the Andersonstown News are always running us and this area down,” said one young person. “It’s all negative stories about here and no positives. Everything that’s been in the paper about Albert Street and Divis in the past three months has been lies. Where are you getting all this kind of information from?”
We tell them that local residents come to us with their concerns.
“Well, if they come forward to the Andersonstown News why don’t they come and have a meeting about this with us and see what the problem is?” suggests one.
Throughout the interview the young people are being watched by the PSNI from a short distance away. We’re shown mobile phone footage of one of their number being arrested just before our arrival.
“The police are sitting watching us talking to you now, and after you go they will stop a number of these young people and harass them. That’s what they do,” said Gerard.
“Those police officers who are meant to be there for the community are the ones that are making it worse,” said another young person. “They’re egging us on by stopping people for no reason, searching them, harassing them and abusing them. What’s all that about? That’s what makes the kids throw stones. They start it and egg it on. You don’t put that in your paper.”
Last year smoke from the Divis bonfire became so thick that it forced a section of the Westlink to be closed temporarily.
“There were hardly any cars on the road at that time of night anyway,” said Gerard. “Anyway, bonfires close down more than roads in loyalist areas.”
Seán asks as we prepare to leave: “What’s the difference between us and the loyalists building bonfires?”