Banners, flags and ‘f**k you’ bonfires - Northern Ireland’s ‘cultural war’ rages

‘It is the first time in a long time that loyalists have won’, says activist Jamie Bryson

John Herron cannot remember seeing flags outside his shop on the Lisburn Road before to mark the Twelfth celebrations, the annual Ulster Protestant commemorations of the Battle of the Boyne.

The owner of the high-end kitchen retailer was surprised a banner was erected across one of Belfast’s busiest roads supporting British army soldiers and “Soldier F” - the former Parachute Regiment member facing charges for the murders of two civil rights demonstrators killed in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

“Around here it is nobody wanting to offend each other,” said the businessman whose clients are mainly young professionals living in or around the Malone Road, one of the most affluent parts of the city.

Local resident Stephen Pierce, walking past the banner, said it was surprising because the Lisburn Road, an upmarket shopping street, was a mixed Catholic and Protestant area with students and ethnic minorities.


“I didn’t think the Lisburn Road was on one side or the other,” said Pierce, a young designer.

Another resident said this banner would have been more typically seen in The Village, the loyalist area bordering the Lisburn Road, which is a route for one of the Orange Order parades.

Nationalist parties Sinn Féin and the SDLP and the centrist Alliance Party, criticised the banner’s appearance in this area. The politicians believed it was a deliberate attempt to provoke and divide in a prominent, mixed area and little to do with the cause of justice for a former British soldier.

The banner’s wording - “Lisburn Road supports our soldiers” - was seen as particularly antagonistic.

"To me, it has been a real coat-trailing exercise," said local SDLP councillor Claire Hanna, who grew up in the area and received many emails complaining about the banner when it was first flown a few weeks ago.

"The ward it was erected is, on paper, one of the most diverse wards in Northern Ireland so it has been done to catch a bit of attention. It is one thing saying [THE LOYALIST] Donegall Pass supports Soldier F. It is in inappropriate but it wouldn't jar - but claiming the allegiance of the Lisburn Road really did annoy people."

Yet it was on another side of the city that Belfast's flashpoint issue of this year's Twelfth emerged: a bonfire built in the car park of the public Avoniel Leisure Centre in east Belfast that was burned without incident late on Thursday on the "Eleventh Night" on the eve of the biggest day in the Ulster Protestant calendar.

Flags and bonfires have long been the cause of community tensions in Northern Ireland.

This contentious bonfire was set ablaze after a week of threats to leisure centre staff, standoffs with local loyalists and a series of emergency meetings by Belfast City Council. The council eventually abandoned its efforts to remove the bonfire, which was built on council property without its permission.

Police had warned that there could be “serious violence” from loyalist paramilitary group, the UVF, and it “could not rule out a risk from firearms” if council workers attempted to dismantle the bonfire.

The dispute initially began amid health and safety concerns over toxic fumes from the burning of the tyres. That aspect of the dispute was quelled when bonfire builders voluntarily agreed to remove them. The council then sought the removal of the bonfire on law and order grounds as it was built illegally on council land.

Some younger loyalists trumpeted the standdown by the council as a victory in what they argue is a long-running “cultural war”. They claim that flags, parades or bonfires are being targeted by nationalists for political objectives to remove “Britishness” from Northern Ireland on the eventual path to a united Ireland.

The influential loyalist blogger and activist Jamie Bryson, a key figure in the 2012-13 flag protests over the council's decision to fly the union flag at City Hall on designated days (rather than every day), used social media throughout the course of this week to portray the Avoniel standoff as a community defending its right to celebrate its unionist culture. He saw it as a pivotal moment in the "cultural war," sustaining the long Unionist tradition of not surrendering.

“A cultural war is very real and Avoniel was a very symbolic test of that war, and it is the first time in a long time that loyalists have won and I think very clearly today that nationalists have lost,” he told The Irish Times.

Within loyalism, the standoff over the bonfire exposed generational differences of opinion.

Keyboard warriors

Prior to the tyres being removed, local loyalist Progressive Unionist Party councillor John Kyle questioned how someone's unionism or Britishness could be diluted by tyres being away for health and safety reasons. Graffiti subsequently appeared on a nearby wall saying: "A vote for John Kyle is a vote for the IRA."

Older loyalists bemoaned the influence of social media and “keyboard warriors” in these heightened tensions. They questioned the desire of some to build “f**k you or FU bonfires” - and a bigger bonfire than another community’s - and praised Kyle for being “brave” in the face of a vociferous defence of the bonfire.

"Too many people want to be popular; good guys need to stand up to that," said Jackie McDonald of the Ulster Political Research Group, an advisory connected to the loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA.

Other loyalists played down the concerns of younger members of their community that making changes to bonfires at the request of the council was in some way surrendering your cultural and political identity.

"I understand that people will feel that their culture is under threat and that republicans have this agenda that they want to do away with bonfires and all the rest of it," said Winston Irvine of the PUP, the political representatives of the UVF.

“I don’t buy into that. Nobody can take away your identity unless you allow them to take it or you give it up yourself.”

These veteran loyalists accept the practical concerns in the community over health and safety issues and environmental issues around the burning of towering bonfires or tyres in the Eleventh night fires.

Former DUP local assembly member Sammy Douglas recalled a local man who loved the Twelfth but went away on holiday every July 12th because he had a respiratory disease and the bonfire was outside his house.

These older loyalists see younger, working-class loyalists clinging to their political identity more keenly when membership of a marching band, for example, gives some a purpose in an economically deprived area where job and career prospects are not good and identity is often “all they have.”

“If you are a working-class lad or family and your identity is valuable to you, you don’t have much money in your pocket, your family history is rooted in this sense of belonging to a constitutional position that has been fought for or sacrificed for,” said Irvine.

Older loyalists acknowledge that some in their community feel their “British culture” is under attack but they believe there has to be greater sensitivity to the concerns of the nationalist community who object to the burning of Irish tricolours, Sinn Féin posters and nationalist effigies on Eleventh bonfires as happened this week.

“Communities need to be thinking about more responsibility in terms of how they celebrate that cultural tradition around the 11th of July. We see quite often the bad examples. There’s lots of very positive and really good work going on,” said Irvine.

Veteran loyalists recognise that the Soldier F flags, which have sprung up on poles in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland since he was charged in March, stir tensions among nationalists in the latest retaliatory act of political signalling over events of Northern Ireland’s recent past.

Rob Williamson, coordinator of the Reach Project community support group in east Belfast, pointed out that the paramilitary-backed umbrella group, the Loyalist Communities Council, has supported restrictions on the flying of paramilitary flags and banners with the intent of reducing tensions and ensuring respect.

“We have to do away with this ‘FU’ mentality. We realise now that it is a different world,” he said.

“During the conflict, our Britishness might have had a big, big capital ‘B’; going forward our Britishness now has a small ‘b’. We need to be inclusive of all the ethnic minorities in this country.”

Claire Hanna of the SDLP believes another B-word has played a role in stirring tensions and been a factor in contentious banners appearing in unusual and unwelcome places.

"The Good Friday Agreement was about focusing less on identity, on borders and sovereignty, and now because of Brexit and the collapse of Stormont we literally talk about nothing else," she said.

Judging from events in Belfast this week and tensions churned up in Northern Ireland by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the journey from Williamson’s capital B to lower-case b will be a difficult one.