THE events of the 8th of August last year in the New Lodge were viewed by many on our TV screens, splashed across social media, filled columns of newspapers and made headlines on news bulletins, for all the wrong reasons. The so called anti-internment bonfire was the catalyst for a carnival of violence, stabbings, beatings, the destruction of the local area and untold misery to the residents who live in the surrounding area.
Last August was the 50th anniversary of the burning of Bombay Street when family homes also burned in the streets of Ardoyne and in many other areas across Belfast, many witnessed families leaving their homes after being ‘put out’ simply because they were Catholics.
Some of those families made the New Lodge their home 50 years ago and last year had to leave their homes in the flats because of the real risk of fire damage to their homes because of the unwanted bonfire.
This time, they had to leave their homes because of the threat of violence and harm from within their own neighbourhood. I will never forget helping some of those families move from their homes in the flats with their small overnight bags, stuffed with their personal belongings against the backdrop of growing crowds and increased tension. It was truly frightening.
After countless elections, community surveys, public meetings, fortnightly multi-agency and community meetings the message was clear: the so-called anti-internment bonfire was unwanted.
The residents, youth groups, community organisations, Sinn Féin, safer streets committee, statutory agencies and many others set about trying to restore calm and, more importantly, started to plan for safer streets, investment, environmental and physical changes that would help prevent crime and provide much needed quality of life for all of the residents.
Sinn Féin made it clear at every opportunity, during interviews, on social media and at public meetings, that we knew that the scenes of last year are not reflective of the almost 3,000 children and young people living in the New Lodge. I encouraged anyone who needed support or assistance to get in contact with us, even some of those who were involved in anti-community behaviour, I repeated that call and a small number of the families contacted us for help.
It should be remembered that we are also still trying to ease our way out of a lockdown from Covid-19 and many of the residents, groups providing services to children and young people, families, carers, sports clubs, older people, to name but a few, were directly involved in providing food parcels, making food and delivering it all to our vulnerable residents and families. Sinn Féin were involved also and are proud to be part of a community that does not have many resources, pull out all of the stops to help our neighbours.
We know the challenges that we still face from a global health pandemic, we are fighting daily to have the appropriate investment needed to tackle poverty and deprivation, suicide, mental ill-health, housing inequality and then some. I know that decades of under-investment and not having the fiscal powers to raise taxes to pay for much needed public services here is having a direct impact on residents.
Sinn Féin and others will continue to secure the services and investment needed. We need to build resilience, to have the infrastructure of homes, clean and safe streets, schools and leisure facilities that are fit for purpose.
Continuing to work collectively with all the groups and residents in the community is key to success and sustainability. “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” translates as “In the shelter of each other the people live” – that is how we live in the New Lodge.
I welcome any intervention that will result in no bonfires and supporting anyone who feels removed from services and support.
However, the Safer Streets, the Star Neighbourhood Centre, the New Lodge Youth Club, Artillery Youth Club, Bridge of Hope, Ashton Centre’s Family Support Hub, residents and others are due credit for ensuring that an unwanted bonfire did not take place this year and that all residents were not put at risk as they were last year.