Emma de Souza: The problem with loyalist bonfires

The burning of national symbols must be called out for what it is – an act of hate

Spectators gathered in Larne, Co Antrim to witness the burning of the biggest bonfire in Northern Ireland, one of 160 that were lit across the North to celebrate the Eleventh Night, which precedes the Twelfth of July parades. Video: Kathleen Harris

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Following a cathartic – if fleeting – reprieve in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year has seen the re-emergence of toxic discourse around the “Eleventh Night” bonfires; one of Northern Ireland’s most controversial subjects. Sure as the sun rises, the annual crop of contentious flaming structures again loom over our neighbourhoods, risking life and property alike.

For weeks leading up to the Twelfth, their imposing forms suffocate the streets before ultimately erupting into flame, smoke and noxious fumes. Draped in Irish flags, political posters, sectarian signs and even human effigies, some of the burnings objectively blur the veil between cultural expression and abject bigotry.

Historically, the Twelfth has burdened the peace process with considerable added strain with its proliferation of the unregulated territorial markers which routinely litter the region, most often taking the form of anything from bonfires being erected at interfaces between Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods, to triumphalist parades deliberately marching in restricted areas, to British flags clinging to lampposts in shared communities.

This year, like many before it, the hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will witness their national flag and cultural symbol smouldering atop burning pyres, set alight in opposition to Irish heritage – set alight by their neighbours. One group of bonfire builders went to the considerable effort of painting hundreds of wooden pallets in the distinctive colours of the Tricolour so that the sacrificial alter itself becomes the national flag of Ireland, borne solely to be burnt to ashes. Another adorned their 70ft structure with a 45ft Tricolour and celebrated the burning of this large-scale symbol of the Irish nation as a family-friendly event. This must be called out for what it is – an act of hate.

Further to national symbols and flags, some loyalist groups set fire to political posters featuring party members of Alliance, Sinn Féin and SDLP right alongside signs reading “KAT”, an initialism of “Kill All Taigs” – a direct call for lethal sectarian violence. This is not culture, it’s incitement to violence. It is hard to draw international comparisons – the concept of publicly burning symbols and messages targeting people of Jewish, Muslim, or any other faith-based denomination would not be tolerated under any circumstances elsewhere in the United Kingdom and Europe – such a barbaric act would be considered a hate crime.

Freedom of expression does not give licence to freedom to hate and cannot be used as justification for the burning of effigies and national symbols on bonfires in the North. Bonfires can be a safe, benign cultural expression, but not when they promote violence, put people out of their homes, damage the environment and burn the national flag of one’s neighbour. One’s own right to cultural expression should not necessitate the oppression of someone else.

Many of the most contentious sites are in working-class areas steeped in deprivation. The months of scavenging for wood is often carried out by children and teenagers, as is the actual construction of the bonfire, which places these children at great personal risk. This past week saw a teenager in Co Tyrone airlifted to hospital after falling from a bonfire site. In Portadown, the collapse of a large-scale bonfire placed all those in attendance, including young children, at risk of serious harm.

North Belfast emerged as a particular point of concern this year following the construction of an illegal bonfire at the Adam Street interface on Department of Infrastructure property. Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon sought to have the structure removed with the assistance of Belfast City Council contractors due to concern over community tensions. However, the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) declined its duties and refused to provide support and protection necessary for the hired contractors to perform their task. This escalated to a last-minute judicial review brought by two Assembly Ministers to force the PSNI to assist. The review was unsuccessful.

The PSNI cited loyalist threats of violence as the reason to not intervene, this sets a dangerous precedent – that violence prevails. All citizens deserve the assurance of protection under the law, and by the police to live free from sectarian harassment – not to be held ransom by the whims of violent thugs and dangerous criminals.

The period of the Twelfth costs the public purse millions of pounds each year in clean-up costs, enhanced policing, civil servants and the fire service. In some areas, families are forced to either flee their homes and businesses completely or have them boarded up, blocking out all windows and light due to the highly dangerous proximity of an often-illegal bonfire. Instead of removing these bonfires for the betterment of those whose lives are at immediate risk, resources are often instead dedicated toward attempting to hose down buildings rather than the bonfires themselves. Residents in such communities are also forced to endure what can amount to months on end of anti-social behaviour, left with a wasteland of scorched earth and toxic remains. Were these bonfires to be properly managed and monitored, made free from sectarianism and positioned in a safe location, these costs would be considerably lower.

Unionism is not a monolith, and many unionists wish to celebrate Twelfth traditions free of association with those who seek to weaponise this time of year as a pulpit with which to stoke sectarian tensions. Numerous July bonfires pass peacefully and participants have tried to adopt more environmentally friendly practices. Ballywalter, for example, have switched to the environmentally clean Beacon option, but the conscientious are so often left unseen and buried by the soot and ash of loyalist displays.

As Northern Ireland teeters on the cusp of change, these archaic expressions of anti-Irish sentiment, compounded with environmental damage and risk to well-being, will do little to appeal to this region’s growing middle ground. Without substantial reform including the prohibition of sectarian hate speech, calls for violence and the burning of flags and effigies, we risk losing another generation of young loyalists to the pit of sectarianism and hate.

Emma de Souza is a writer and citizen’s rights activist

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