Twelfth of July highlights the North’s uncertain future
Northern Irish youth should be able by now to wake up to more than ashes and hangovers
Bloomfield Walkway bonfire in east Belfast on Monday after Belfast City Council asked bonfire builders to reduce its size. Photograph: PA
The girls were sitting out on picnic chairs at the edge of the estate, sipping cider from cans, chatting, watching the men on the green below. The place was a mess. On Friday night, after three months of preparation and building, Northern Ireland’s self-styled biggest bonfire, at Kilcooley, in Bangor, Co Down, had collapsed, the disaster captured, of course, filmed and shared, to a mix of dismay and delight, depending on your politics.
When I visited on Monday night, the place was a mess, but the tumbled ruin was beginning to take shape again. Shattered pallets, crushed cans, torn pizza boxes littered the sun-bleached green around which men moved purposefully about, lifting and laying, shouting instructions to the drivers of two cherrypickers.
The girls were friendly but shy. “I’ll get someone to talk to you,” one of them said, picking up her phone. A man with a face like thunder stormed up from his work below. “We hate you,” he said. “You’re all liars. Fake news. Doesn’t matter what we say. You do nothing but victimise us and deny us our rights. You’re as bad as the politicians and you’re paid by the politicians.” Welcome to loyalist Ulster.
Stormont is silent and there is no sign that the executive and its assembly will return. Westminster is in the turmoil of a Tory civil war, and refuses to introduce direct rule. Indeed Theresa May appeared to set Northern Ireland entirely adrift when she spoke of her “Brexit deal for Britain”, excluding from her disunited kingdom its most westerly province, despite her absolute reliance upon the bought votes of the DUP.
But some certainties remain. Tonight is the 11th night, and at midnight, in the heartlands of Ulster loyalism, monumental bonfires will be set ablaze and there will be roars of “no surrender” once again. While the angry man ranted, another man approached, took off his work gloves and extended his hand. “Shake the hand of the man that rocked Northern Ireland,” he said. “Do you know who I am?” Yes. “Well, don’t use my name.”
The boys, like the girls watching them, said they loved the 11th night, and they love the 12th. “I’ve been stacking bonfires since I was a year old and my father and grandfather before me,” said the man. “It’s what keeps our community together. We get a wee grant now and we have a big party with bands and a funfair and all the rest.”
The grants include agreements that no paramilitary trappings should surround the bonfires and that they should not pose risks to the public. At Kilcooley there are flags for the UVF, the UDA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the name used by the UDA for its killers. The man said the flags were commemorative. I asked about the UFF ones. He said there were none. “The UDA is part of this community,” he said. “That is the bottom line.”
The hard men will always find ways to thrive in the macho North
A council spokesperson responded to my inquiry about the funding but made no reference to the paramilitary aspect: “The council under its cultural expression agreement provides funding to support positive community festivals associated with bonfires that positively celebrate local cultural and family participation and encourage cultural/educational and diversionary activities.”
The Orange Order has ads on the sides of buses and on billboards reminding those who will party tonight that: “It’s about the battles not the bottle.” But the slabs of cans getting carted out of off-licenses the length and breadth of the North suggest that the latest generation of young loyalists see no incompatibility.
Legacy of conflict
The man drew my attention to a mural for a local flute band, named after the UDA. “That’s demilitarisation,” he said. The list of names commemorated on the mural included some of young men who had killed themselves, he said.
“It’s a working-class legacy of conflict,” he said. Bangor is wealthy, but Kilcooley is full of families suffering from British austerity cuts to welfare payments. The man has a big job and is often photographed with DUP politicians, though he did not demur when his mate denounced the party as “crooks that don’t give a shit about us”.
He told me his eight-year-old daughter was at a private school but still played in a flute band. “She’s posh but she still sings the Sash,” he said.
The man said the Kilcooley bonfire was going to be the biggest and best. “You’ll see it from space,” he said. Tinderbox conditions after weeks of intense heat are causing the annual anxieties of those at risk from the bonfires to escalate. In east Belfast there are tense negotiations because several terraces of traditional redbrick houses are overshadowed by a monstrous structure.
Attempts by local councils to intervene are mocked by flags that will be burned in the fire claiming the councils are run by the IRA.
It isn’t just the loyalists. In Derry, a handful of so-called dissident republicans are fomenting old sectarian hatreds and sending out young fools to stone Protestants in the Fountain area. Come August they will enourage them, no doubt, to build a bonfire in the middle of the road to commemorate internment again, too.
The hard men will always find ways to thrive in the macho North but the young should have been able by now to wake up in the morning to more than hangovers and ashes.