Dutch Fireworks Tradition versus Non-Factual Politics by Nick van der Veen

Dutch Fireworks Tradition versus Non-Factual Politics by Nick van der Veen

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Popularly known throughout the world for their Gouda Cheese, Clogs and Windmills, the Dutch are now becoming increasingly recognised for their love of fireworks. Historically the Dutch passion for fireworks is relatively new, with its popularity increasing in the Seventies and Eighties. Over the last few decades New Year’s Eve has become a very special day for many Dutch people, who are allowed to let off consumer fireworks between 10:00am on the 31st of December and 02:00am on January the 1st, something the Dutch consider to be an exceptional privilege.

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With an average yearly turnover of 65 million Euros, the Dutch consumer fireworks retail industry has become big business, though fireworks manufacturing has been prohibited now for nearly a decade. The government decided that manufacturing fireworks locally was far too dangerous, given the high population density and the numerous built up areas and besides, China is more than willing and able to fulfill the Dutch need for fireworks and as a consequence we now only have fireworks importers and retailers in the Netherlands.

‘So far so good,’ you may think, but no. Whilst the majority of Dutch people treat this tradition with respect, there are those that give this tradition a bad name. Numerous problems occur each year, such as the nuisance caused by individuals letting off fireworks days before the official allowed times and people using illegal (very loud) fireworks in a built up area. Vandalism is another issue with objects and possessions being damaged or blown up by irresponsible individuals using fireworks. There is also a group of people who are just not safety conscious at all, intoxicated people for example are part of that group, and there are those individuals who use fireworks recklessly trying to impress their peers. Every firework season people get seriously injured having been involved in firework accidents, mostly in the home environment. Fireworks, which often contain flash powder are also being placed in steel pipes or glass bottles, so it is no surprise that a lot of injuries occur, especially in this particularly small group of irresponsible individuals.

As a result the fireworks tradition is ‘stained’ by unwanted headlines. Government, as well as the fireworks trade, have so far been unable to address these problems effectively, possibly due to conflicting interests. The Dutch government is primarily trying to clamp down on illegal fireworks, mainly for economic reasons as purchasing fireworks generates tax revenue. From an education approach Police officers visit schools in December and explain to the pupils the dangers of using a ‘non Dutch’ firework, rather than the emphasis being on teaching the safe use of fireworks. Perhaps this should be more of a task for the firework trade itself, but apart from a few individual ‘small scale’ initiatives, nothing structural or effective has been happening, which is a pity. People, especially children, need to learn how to use fireworks properly and safely.

‘Vuurwerktraditie Nederland’, established in 2008, was set up by a group of Dutch fireworks enthusiasts and professionals, people who really care about fireworks. ‘VN’ feels there is a strong need for promoting facts and education about our consumer fireworks. ‘VN’ has been created as a genuine response to an ongoing and increasing media frenzy directed against the use of consumer fireworks. We feel that it is important for people to be able to express how they feel about matters, whilst it is equally important that these so-called ‘facts’ are verified. It appears that people who want an outright ban on fireworks use just about any tactic, but does their end justify their means? For instance Mr. Arno Bonte the spokesperson for the Dutch political party ‘Groen Links’ has repeatedly stated, that ‘’we (the Dutch) are the only country in Europe letting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve’’, which (in his opinion) makes us look like a “silly nation.” Another statement made by Mr. Arno is that Dutch firework bangers are getting more powerful each year. These statements are both misleading and incorrect and we can prove this easily. Our website (www.vuurwerktraditie.nl)

contains a map of Europe, showing all the countries that have the same tradition of letting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve which is about 80%! As for Dutch firecrackers, these are almost certainly not increasing in strength. Since the ban on the use of ‘flash-powder’ in bangers in the mid 1980’s, the average firecracker reaches 100dB, if that. The really loud and dangerous bangers originate from abroad and are considered illegal.

Hoax stories like these are circulating in the press all the time the general public, lay people who have no great knowledge of fireworks, readily accept these claims as facts, which is unfortunate. A number of incorrect or ‘non-factual’ issues have therefore been challenged and exposed by ‘Vuurwerktraditie’ in the last couple of years. For example, recently there was an awful news story about a cat being blown up by a firework (2010). The story was published in numerous media sources, including a broadcast on prime time TV. Everyone was up in arms about it and the ongoing debate of a ban on fireworks was reignited. However, proper investigation afterwards proved the news story to be a hoax. A deceased cat was found, but forensic investigation indicated it had been hit by a car. The fireworks aspect of the story was based purely on a claim made by an anonymous bystander to a reporter from the ‘Telegraaf’ newspaper. The actual source could no longer be traced once the truth came out. You would expect a rectification in the media about this turn of events, but of course that never happened. Effectively this was a ‘hit and run’ media attack on the people’s senses and minds, anti-firework propaganda. People because of the lack of retraction people are left with the belief that this story was actually true. ‘Vuurwerktraditie Nederland’ ensures that this type of media propaganda is at least scrutinized, exposed and rectified where possible.

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In retrospect, it was good that we exposed the blown up cat ‘urban myth’ or contemporary legend, because in January 2014 an identical story hit the news. Again it was front-page news and once again there was national coverage on prime time TV. The outcry was similar as well, with immediate calls to ‘ban fireworks!’ A week later this story was again proven to be a hoax and once again no rectification or mention of the hoax could be found anywhere in the press. Some ‘Vuurwerktraditie’ members are of the opinion that even though they cannot prove it these ‘blown-up cat’ stories are a deliberate and false attempt at negative propaganda designed to manipulate the public’s opinion about consumer fireworks.

In March 2014 the Mayors of the four largest cities in the Netherlands wrote a letter to the Government asking for stricter measures. They strongly believed that vandalism, casualties and nuisance could be reduced by limiting the legal days of the sale of fireworks to two, namely the 30th and 31st of December. They also proposed cutting down the hours during which people are allowed to let off fireworks from the current 16 to only 3. Naturally, these measures will only affect people who are trying to do the right thing, those abiding by the law. The problems that need be addressed however, are rarely caused by law abiding citizens.

The worst case scenario is that the situation will escalate with further restrictions. People will more motivated to buy their fireworks abroad, thus avoiding the very long queues and relatively high prices in the Netherlands, especially when compared to those in Belgium and Germany. Firework consumers may also be tempted to turn to the black market (which is already well established in the Netherlands) in order to purchase their fireworks. This way profits (and this really is a lot of money!) will end up in the wrong hands and more potentially dangerous fireworks will find their way into the hands of un-suspecting customers.

Therefore choosing the above scenario could result in our government, as well as the fireworks trade losing an important element of control. Reducing the hours of sale will in our opinion be counterproductive. Anyone with common sense can see this, but not our four Mayors.

Fireworks retailers would find it practically impossible to do their job efficiently, because all the merchandise (usually worth around 65 million Euro’s worth) needs to be transported, processed and sold in as they propose, only two days! A typical fireworks retailer already does not have enough storage space or the proper licenses to keep up with demand even without these proposed measures in place. The most important aspect of the whole story though is that it completely misses the point.

‘Vuurwerktraditie Nederland,’ are of the opinion that the criminal behaviour of individuals during the fireworks’ season should be the issue addressed more intensely. We are also of the opinion that the general public, especially children and parents, should be properly educated on the safe use of fireworks. The general public should also be encouraged to be safer around others when letting off fireworks as well as keeping an eye on the people around them. Banning fireworks outright to us is equal to giving up on trying to properly manage a situation, which in our opinion is the wrong way forward. The road to a better world is long in many ways, but we strongly believe we should always remain on the road of truth and facts to get the job done.

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