Two unionist parties have accused Sinn Féin of trying to discredit and demean Twelfth of July commemorations, including bonfires and parades.
In a joint statement, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) alleged Sinn Féin is waging an aggressive “cultural war”.
They called on unionists to attend a “cultural convention” in the autumn to promote future Twelfth of July events.
The statement was issued by DUP and PUP group leaders on Belfast City Council.
Bonfires are traditionally lit in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland on the eve of the annual 12 July celebrations.
However, some bonfires have been controversial, as they have presented a risk to health and safety or caused damage to homes and property.
The four bonfire sites named in the injunction are:
- Ravenscroft Avenue car park/Bloomfield walkway
- Avoniel Leisure Centre car park
- Inverary playing fields
- Cregagh Park East
The DUP-PUP statement was released days after the council was granted a High Court injunction that bans any more material being added to four east Belfast bonfires.
Sinn Féin has told the BBC that all political parties on the council, including the unionist parties, had supported filing for the injunction.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “It is clear from this statement that both the DUP and PUP have provided no answer to the public for their support for the court injunction on four council sites.
“What is needed now is leadership from unionist parties instead of attempting to divert from their support for these injunctions with a baseless and inflammatory attack on Sinn Féin.
“This injunction was supported by all political parties on Belfast City Council including the DUP, UUP and PUP.”
‘They haven’t a spine’
Alliance Party Leader Naomi Long has said the move was proposed by council staff and had the support of unionist councillors.
Pointing out that the joint PUP-DUP letter did not defend nor deny that support, she tweeted: “They hope by keeping quiet they can off-load responsibility onto Alliance for taking [a] decision.
“They haven’t a spine between them, frankly.”
She also said that the “vast majority of residents would be grateful for leadership to break climate of fear” but added that “locals [are] afraid to speak” as the fear a “backlash”.
On Monday, a council spokesperson said the injunction was “obtained in the context of preserving public safety and avoiding and minimising damage to property”.
“In particular its purpose was to prevent more materials from reaching the sites in question.”
The council added that the injunction “does not make any specific reference to the lighting of the bonfire”.
In relation to the assertion that the injunction had the support of all parties, a council spokesperson said: “A meeting was conducted with the caveat of confidentiality due to the sensitive nature of the issues to be discussed, and the presence of external agencies.”
In later statement, the PUP welcomed what it described as “clarification” from Belfast City Council.
It said: “We believe that this clarification clearly defines the original intention of preventing the bonfires from growing to an unmanageable size that may endanger property, and, in some cases, life.
“We also believe that it does not prevent the lighting of any materials that are already on site and that no person doing so should face any legal action.
“This injunction should not be allowed to be used as a blanket authorisation to criminalise our community.
“Where this happens, we will be there to oppose and stand strong against any street agitation from Republicans,” it added.
In their joint statement, DUP councillor Lee Reynolds and PUP councillor Billy Hutchinson said parades and bonfires were about “celebrating a momentous victory and a key part of the narrative around our contribution to our national history”.
“In recent weeks there has been a clear strategy to rewrite this narrative and to discredit the celebrations surrounding it,” they added.
“Republicans wish to undo all positive progress such as the growth of Orangefest and the successes of the Bonfire programme.
“We must not let our unity of purpose be disrupted or harmed by the actions of those who want to devalue and demean us.”
Sinn Féin councillor Jim McVeigh was among those who welcomed the injunction, saying it would stop large bonfires threatening the safety of people, homes and property.
Speaking on the BBC’s Nolan Show on Monday, Mr McVeigh said he hoped the council would ask a contractor to clear all the material already gathered at the four bonfire sites.
However, the DUP and PUP statement claimed Mr McVeigh was being used as a “glorified message boy” to hide Sinn Féin’s “strategic failures”.
They accused Sinn Féin of an “attempt at cultural dictation” and called on unionists to “work together for a cultural renewal that includes input from the parading organisations, bands, community organisations and bonfire groups”.
The DUP and PUP issued an invitation to “those who want the Twelfth celebrations to succeed to come together this autumn for a cultural convention”.
“The aim of this will be to ensure that the unionist community can go forward with one voice in promoting our culture, heritage and tradition, as well as to ensure that our celebrations continue to be bigger, better and more successful than ever before.”
Meanwhile, Belfast City Council has said the decision-making process which led to the bonfire injunction will remain confidential.
So far, it is not clear if any steps to stop bonfire-building at any of the four site have been taken.
The council said it will “review any information received – either directly or via the police – relating to any persons allegedly breaching the injunction, and will consider what further action is appropriate”.