Page last updated at 19:49 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 20:49 UK

Turning hotspot into friendly fire

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

In some of the loyalist hotspots in Northern Ireland, attempts are being made to turn the belligerent Belfast bonfire into a 'friendly fire'.

Beacon-style bonfire
The new beacon-style fire is safer and more environmentally-friendly

Traditionally, bonfires are lit the night before the Twelfth of July and the aim is to make them as big - and as brutal - as possible.

Over the years, for many loyalists the fires were not complete without an Irish flag, a Glasgow Celtic shirt or a Catholic emblem on the top for a ceremonial burning.

It costs thousands of pounds every year to clean up the mess the fires create across Northern Ireland. It is not just a tidy-up operation - in some cases burnt roads have to be re-surfaced.

In the past, there have been so-called 'shows of strength' by the UDA and UVF at some bonfires, when hooded gunmen appeared from the shadows and fired bullets into the night air to whoops of delight from a cheering, drunken crowd.

If all goes according to plan, a very different scene will be witnessed in the lower Shankill Road this weekend and five other loyalist parts of Belfast.

Instead of building a high-rise, high-polluting, highly-offensive bonfire, the communities say they are planning a night which is both family-friendly and environmentally-friendly.

The centrepiece will be a custom-built beacon - a pyramid-shaped metal-cage filled with willow wood-chips, and set on a base of sand to protect the ground below.

It is much smaller than the traditional, towering bonfire but it is easier to control and a lot safer.

Although technically bonfires are illegal, Belfast City Council is taking a pragmatic approach and trying to manage them rather than get rid of them.

The council's Good Relations Officer, David Robinson, is promoting the new beacons.

He explained: "People might say that bonfires are never going to be environmentally friendly, but this is about as close as we're going to get.

Huge bonefire with people standing on top
The old-style bonfire is dangerous and damages the environment

"On the top there is willow wood-chipping. Willow is a carbon renewable material and when a willow tree is cut down it's back up again within a year."

In spite of resistance to the idea in many hardline parts of Belfast, six of the beacons are already in place.

By agreeing to the new type of bonfire, the communities qualify for up to £1,500 of funding from Belfast City Council for a street party - as long as they don't put up paramilitary flags, or try to burn any tyres.

So is this a form of community bribery?

"Absolutely not," says John Howcroft, a community worker who is part of the Conflict Transformation Initiative in north Belfast.

"It's about supporting culture in our community. This is the culture of our people. It's maintaining that culture in a safe and positive fashion."

In the Woodvale district of Belfast last year, they had a trial-run with a beacon, erected by the not-for-profit organisation Groundwork Northern Ireland. Now it's catching on, but only slowly.

Many areas are resisting change.

Some loyalists see it as an attempt to wipe away unionist and Protestant culture.

However, others see it differently, including many on the lower Shankill Road which was once the most notorious part of Belfast, dominated by paramilitary leader Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair.

Ian McLaughlin, from the Lower Shankill Community Association, said the new style of bonfire showed there was now a new era.

He said: "This community has suffered for many years both from internal and external violence and we believe that this beacon sends a positive signal to the whole community that the lower Shankill is prepared for change."

The six environmentally-friendly bonfires will not transform Northern Ireland overnight.

Nonetheless, they are seen by most people as a step in the right direction, at the height of the marching season.

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