Nationalist leaders have said they were abandoned by the government and police in Belfast after young people in their community built huge bonfires without challenge earlier this week.

The practice of lighting fires in nationalist areas to commemorate the introduction of internment without trial in 1971 was something that largely died out in the last twenty years, but a hard core of young people continue to build the fires.

They claim they are continuing a tradition, but the fires are more associated with alcohol and drug abuse.

One young person, who called himself a republican, told the Irish Echo he was unconcerned at the opposition from residents.

“This is our culture, it’s our tradition. They (loyalists) do it and get funded so why shouldn’t we.”

In the republican New Lodge area barricades had been erected to prevent police trying to dismantle the Monday night fire which had been built on a public road.

Fights involving up to a hundred people later broke out with local people afraid to leave their homes.

A local community worker, who did not want to be named, said she couldn’t believe that they were permitted to build the fire without challenge.

“We have been abandoned. They were allowed to build the fire in broad daylight and there was nothing done about it. Local people don’t know where to turn because the police just aren’t interested in taking them on.”

The PSNI’s official line is that they have “no legislative powers to remove bonfires” but they promised there would be more resources in the area.

However, Sinn Féin representative Carál Ní Chuilín said there was huge anger in the area that the fire was allowed to go ahead and nothing was done to stop it.

“The statutory agencies that are responsible for public safety, our environment, cleansing, and residents quality of life utterly failed this community last night.

“They can’t offer excuses, this community were vocal and united in our opposition to the bonfire and backed those agencies to act to address the problem on their behalf.

“Community workers, residents, elected representatives and local initiatives such as Safer Streets have actively removed hundreds of pallets putting themselves at personal risk to protect the area, their homes and the safety of local children.

“Serious political efforts have been made to hold those same agencies to account and secure assurances that this community’s wishes would be respected,” she said.