WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
18 July 2015(begins time stamp ~ 17:50)
S Boyer: We're going over to Belfast to speak with Suzanne Breen, who's one of the leading journalists covering Northern Ireland. Suzanne, thank you very much for being with us.
S Breen: Hi, Sandy.
S Boyer: Suzanne, you were covering the bonfires that went off on The Twelfth to celebrate the wonderful anniversary of King Billy defeating King James at The Boyne with the assistance of The Vatican. Tell us a little bit about what you heard and saw.
S Breen: That's right, Sandy. Well for me, the most worrying and disgraceful bonfire was one in East Belfast near a street called Chobham Street and there there was an absolutely massive bonfire built by some local youths and it was just thirty feet away from houses. There was one thousand seven hundred wooden pallets on the bonfire. It must have taken it up to about sixty feet. It was much, much bigger than the houses that it was situated so perilously close to. And down the centre of the bonfire was a core of tyres which is completely illegal. And residents were so terrified that some of them moved out of their homes days before this bonfire went up in flames. Now these aren't Nationalist residents, these are working-class Protestant residents – many elderly people, some of them not in good health – and they were forced to move out because nobody would take action to stop this bonfire. And they were terrified that their houses would go up in flames. The Department of Regional Development, which is one of the Stormont departments, own the land, and the residents begged them to remove the bonfire or remove some of it but they would do nothing. The police would do noting. The Fire Service would do nothing. The Council would do nothing.
And basically forty-eight hours before the bonfire was due to go up the state authorities came round and boarded up the windows and left boarding for the doors of the houses so people were faced with the choice of either: evacuating - going to stay with friends or relatives, leaving their homes or else boarding themselves in - imprisoning themselves in their houses and praying that their houses didn't catch fire on the night.
S Boyer: And Suzanne, these young men who were starting the bonfire, did they say anything about why they were dong this?
S Breen: They just had an absolutely cavalier attitude: they were going to have their bonfire. They wanted it to be a big bonfire. They didn't think the land was going to be available the following year because a children's play park was going to be built on it. And they wanted this – it was going to be their last bonfire on the site - and they wanted it to be big. And their attitude really seemed to be: Well, sure if there is a problem the Fire Service will deal with it - a very, very cavalier and arrogant attitude. As it happened there were thirty-six firefighters had to be present for the entire bonfire. Fire engines had to be called in from all across Belfast. And they had to constantly spray the roofs and the brickwork of the houses for two solid hours to stop them going up on fire. And what's disgraceful is that: everybody was held to ransom by a crowd of teenage bonfire makers and that no one within the Unionist community - politicians, community workers, paramilitary organisations - stepped in to say: enough was enough and that nobody in authority in the state - very, very well-paid officials, including the Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy - none of them had the guts to actually stop it because they were frightened that if they did there would have been - what I would have said would have been minor rioting or trouble in the streets - but basically the hoodlum bonfire makers won.
S Boyer But as you said the Fire Service was there with their fire hoses - they wouldn't put water on the fire?
S Breen: They didn't put the fire out – that would have be regarded as inflammatory – so they didn't do that. What they did was they saturated the houses with water and they had special little cameras that they used to see if any house was in imminent danger of going up in flames and those houses were saturated for the two hours that that fire burned.
JM: Suzanne, John McDonagh here. I wanted to get into a more broader aspect of what this represents. Now I was listening to The Stephen Nolan Show on BBC (Radio) Ulster (and I would recommend people to listen to that just mainly for the phone calls and the topics he covers) and the Loyalists calling in were saying: this is our heritage. This is our culture. Now, I've travelled around the world and I've never went anywhere saying: If you see someone that's doing Irish step-dancing – Ah! That's Irish. Or you see someone doing the flamenco - they could be from Argentina - or there's different things that represent a culture. I've never went anywhere where you sit down and say: Well listen, let's build a bonfire. I want to represent my Loyalist culture. Let's burn effigies of the Pope and political politicians – I mean, even the exports within the Loyalist community - you could say from James Galway to Van Morrison - they essentially have distanced themselves from this type of behaviour. But this type of culture which they say represents them it only represents them in that tiny area. I mean, no one around the world would ever say: Listen, I like that culture. I want to emulate that culture. And yet they go on and they - what you just described: I don't care if we have to burn down our own community! This is our culture!
S Breen: Yeah, it is rather amasing, John, with some Protestant/Unionists in Northern Ireland – I've been surprised as to people who I certainly don't regard as bigots felt have that it is something very, very important to their culture that they do it. And it seems to be that they think that if it's interfered with then they are very, very much under threat and their culture is very much under threat. And there also almost seems to be a macho thing associated with it: we will build it bigger - we will build it higher every year – and that somehow that that reflects that Unionism is still a force to be reckoned with when of course the rest of us see no such link.
The other thing that I would have to say is I noticed that there seems to be this year a resurgence in terms of Republicans wanting to have bonfires next month to mark the anniversary of internment. I mean I've seen people on social media who are very, very condemnatory of what Loyalists are doing and then they're saying: Hey! But we're gathering stuff for the August bonfires. Really, I think the whole place is taking a step backwards - that somehow political culture is identified and associated with gathering a huge pile of rubbish and then standing around that rubbish, a lot of people being drunk, and burning it. But I do notice more Republicans this year seem to be linking into this than in the past because bonfires in Republican areas were very much on their way out and regarded as anti-social.
S Boyer: Suzanne, there's an article on Nuzhound today, where your work can be read, a group of Loyalists, I don't know who or what or what they represent, saying they were declaring war on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Is this symptomatic of something broader?
S Breen: I don't take that group seriously and Sandy, I think there is alot of frustration in the Unionist and Loyalist community, particularly with the trouble that there is in Ardoyne - that they aren't allowed to march past that part of the road - they see other marches that they had, marches in Portadown, marches in the Lower Ormeau, they have been stopped. They think that their heritage, their culture is under siege and they're very angry at the police for implementing what the Parades Commission decides on parades. So this group has declared that it's going to target police officers and the Parades Commission. But really, when I looked at the photograph - when I looked at the weapons that they had in front of them which were very antiquated – the whole way they delivered their message - I think it is really just propaganda and I don't think that it represents a serious threat to police or Parades Commission members in terms of them being assassinated. Of course there is a danger, particularly to police from Loyalist rioters on the ground - we saw one police officer had his ear almost severed in riots, but the threat is like that, on the ground, as opposed to people being assassinated.
S Boyer: Suzanne, thank you very much. We've been talking to Suzanne Breen, one of the leading journalists covering Northern Ireland. As I said you can read her work on Nuzhound. Again Suzanne, thank you very much.
(ends time stamp ~ 27:47)