Critics of Corcrain bonfire have been accused of causing ‘hysteria’ amid this week’s calls for it to be either reduced or removed.
Emergency meetings were held at Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council with claims the bonfire would cause a danger to people or property.
Calls for the structure, which was built on council land, to be removed or reduced fell on deaf ears with bonfire builders determined to light it, either on July 10th or before.
On Wednesday a spokesperson for the South Ulster Housing Association said: “We have 24 flats (in Corcrain), and about half have decided to vacate or are taking a break. The vast majority are making their own arrangements. All three blocks will be boarded in the areas facing the fire.”
Nationalists and Alliance politicians had called for the structure to be removed, however, the harshest criticism was aimed at Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie who had suggested the bonfire be reduced amid claims it could be dangerous to nearby property.
A spokesperson for the Corcrain Bonfire, who wished to remain anonymous, described the call for residents to be evacuated and for the bonfire to be reduced or removed as ‘hysteria’ adding that it was substantially smaller than last year’s bonfire which drew no warnings.
“The bottom circumference is 31 pallets round - last year it was 36 pallets. The height last year was 223 pallets high and as it sits at the minute, it’s 149. We are still building but it is going to be smaller,” he said, adding that they had discovered big diesel cubes in the bonfire and had them removed.
“We have fantastic engagement with the NI Fire and Rescue Service, the police, the council and the Housing Executive. We can all sit and have a proper conversation and dialogue,” he said. “Doug Beattie should have came to us and spoke to us. He not once crossed this field and said, this is what I think.”
He added that he couldn’t understand why, with the bonfire being at 223 pallets high last year, that there were no objections then.
“The Fire Service have always come in here and hosed down houses. Yes that might not be normal for outside people but people living here know that this is the normal thing.
“No one has ever came down and said, you went from having 80 posters on the fire and 40 flags to one Tricolour. No one said, that’s a step in the right direction.”
He described the letter from the South Ulster Housing Association as ‘hysteria.
“At that rate what happened last year was gross negligence on behalf of all these authorities with the fire being almost twice the size.”
At the weekend, Mr Beattie said: “It is clear that the lines of communication between those who build the Corcrain bonfire and the council remain good and in many ways very productive. This has seen issues of tyres on the bonfire in previous years being resolved as well as a lot of work to reduce anti-social behaviour and reduce drinking at the bonfire site. The site has also been kept clean and tidy – all of which deserve a mention and those organisers of the bonfire should be commended for this.
“However, this year the issue has been around the size of the bonfire and myself and other councillors have been contacted by multiple individuals who have genuine concerns around the effects such a large bonfire may have on their property. This is not an isolated concerns and has been a theme for a number of years. This year it has escalated and has led to a letter from the South Ulster Housing Association (SUHA) offering alternative accommodation based on the council assessment of the bonfire which reads ‘Given the expected size of the bonfire the council advise evacuating residents from the affected blocks of flats’.
“There are those who will argue it will be no bigger than last year but the reality remains the Northern Ireland Fire Service believe it is a danger to life and property and that is not acceptable.
“Nobody is attempting to remove the bonfire, in fact it is a community bonfire with considerable community support, but it cannot be right that anyone is being asked to leave their property because the bonfire puts them and their property at risk. Again I ask for the bonfire builders to show maturity and reduce the size of the bonfire. This does not dilute their identity, their traditions or their culture, in fact it does the very opposite and promotes their cultural activities in keeping with historical norms.
“In the meantime the Council has a duty to ensure they do all they can to deal with this situation working on the worst case scenario.”
Meanwhile, this week Sinn Fein strongly criticised what it described as a ‘u-turn’ by ABC Council.
Cllr Paul Duffy claimed senior council officers revealed that an earlier decision to employ contractors to remove materials from the bonfire had now been reversed.
Cllr Duffy said: “The decision to pull contractors from removing firewood from the Corcrain bonfire to reduce the risk to life and property is a complete abdication of council’s duty to ratepayers, particularly those living in the two blocks of flats where residents have been told to leave their homes.
“We all have a right to live free from fear and intimidation in our homes but this Council is failing dismally in its duty to protect ratepayers and uphold its legal responsibilities.
“The lack of leadership from within unionism in tackling these bonfires is also telling.
“As a result, residents will be faced with a decision to take shelter in a community centre or hostel or risk their lives. That is a shameful indictment on all those involved.”
SDLP Cllr Thomas O’Hanlon said: “This bonfire in Portadown poses an immediate risk to the safety of hundreds of residents and property. Council sought to act in the public interest and after many attempts a contractor was appointed to clear the site or reduce it to a safe height as a minimum.
“Late yesterday evening (Tuesday) we were informed that some of the builders had taken up camp at the top of this monstrosity. By doing so this scuppered any attempt to clear the site. The belief is that the fire may be lit as contractors moved in. These actions are putting both their own lives and the local community at serious risk.
“We should not be in this position. This is not about denying communities their right to cultural expression. This is about protecting life and property. However, official advice was it was an even greater risk to move in with a contractor.”