12 July 2019

Bonfires and the Boyne – how the Twelfth divides Northern Ireland

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The Orange Order’s annual Twelfth of July parades take place today in towns and villages across Northern Ireland. For many unionists, this commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne is an important tradition and a major celebration. But the event is also controversial, because some nationalists see it as an expression of triumphalism and religious supremacy, aimed at humiliating and intimidating them.

During the build-up to the marches, tensions often rise in communities in Northern Ireland. Previously, most disputes focused on the proposed routes of parades, as republican groups challenged the right of marchers to walk close to areas they asserted were Catholic or nationalist.

This year, controversy centres on a number of bonfires that loyalists, particularly in Belfast, burn on the eleventh night, as a precursor to celebrations the next day. These can be anarchic, drink-fuelled events, usually organised by local youths rather than the Orange Order, and some of the less well-planned pyres pose risks to life and property.

Bonfire builders claim that the fires are a vital part of their culture and a recent survey found that, for young people in loyalist areas, they’re an important source of community pride. Critics point to paramilitary trappings that accompany some of these events, a divisive tradition of burning symbols or effigies of political opponents and the environmental harm that can be caused by burning tyres and other potentially toxic materials.

A bonfire on the grounds of Avoniel leisure centre in east Belfast caused the fiercest row this year. Belfast City councillors voted to remove materials from the site, on the basis that it could damage nearby buildings. Bonfire builders then extracted hundreds of tyres in an effort to have the structure deemed safe, but the council insisted that it would be taken away regardless.

Vociferous protests followed and the leisure centre was closed after a group of men barricaded its entrance and allegedly threatened staff. On Wednesday, the council gave up on having the bonfire removed, when workers charged with doing the job withdrew their services.

Some loyalist campaigners presented the decision as a victory for peaceful protest, but it was taken only after contractors’ details were leaked and included in ominous graffiti, sprayed on walls close to the leisure centre. The PSNI warned that the UVF was involved in the dispute and it “could not rule out a risk from firearms”, if plans to demolish the structure went ahead.

The bonfire ritual is an established part of the Twelfth celebrations, but over recent decades the tradition has become more widespread beyond Belfast and the typical size of the fires has increased. The vast majority of events are not contentious but a few put organisers at odds with authorities and local residents.

Usually, the towering structures are composed predominantly of wooden pallets, but tyres are sometimes used to bulk out the construction and keep flames burning for longer. For months before July, bonfire sites are centres of youthful industry, as materials for the big night are stock-piled and guarded. As communities compete to build the tallest, most eye-catching fire, safety can be forgotten and, when they’re finally lit, adjacent buildings are sometimes damaged.

During one high profile incident in 2017, a bonfire at the Sandy Row, close to Belfast city centre, shattered windows and scorched the exterior of a ten storey apartment block. The Northern Ireland Fire Service said that a potential disaster had been avoided only narrowly.

The atmosphere at eleventh night events can be celebratory, with food, bouncy castles for children and dance music for young people, but it’s easy to see why outsiders sometimes find them intimidating. The fires are lit round midnight, often topped by Republic of Ireland flags and political posters for Sinn Fein or other parties deemed hostile to loyalism.

While this sectarian frisson is one source of controversy, there is a class dimension to some of the criticisms bonfires attract. Middle-class unionists are as likely as nationalists to mock the idea that polluting the air and damaging buildings can be regarded as a form of culture. The contentious fires all take place in staunchly working-class areas and they are more than a little rough around the edges compared to a night at the Lyric Theatre or a concert by the Ulster Orchestra.

There is a common perception, not without basis, that, in the run-up to the Twelfth, Northern Ireland’s more genteel areas empty of people, who time their holidays to avoid parades and bonfires.

Still, the Orange Order has tried sincerely to make events more appealing to families and tourists. It encourages supporters to concentrate on the ‘battle not the bottle’ to curb the rampant street drinking that takes place at some parades, particularly in Belfast, and promotes ‘Orangefest’ which presents the marches as colourful street-festivals.

Bonfire organisers in some areas have emulated these efforts by replacing fires with more manageable ‘beacons’, or working with local authorities to attract funding for festivals and fun-days.

In truth, many nationalists are unlikely ever to be convinced that the pageantry at the Twelfth is inclusive, because of what it represents politically. The parades celebrate King William III’s defeat of King James VII at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the Orange Order presents the outcome as a victory for Protestantism and Britishness. For that institution, its ‘demonstrations’ are a way of affirming faith and culture.

Some nationalist politicians, particularly in Sinn Fein, have worked hard to portray the parades as ‘sectarian coat-trailing’ and at times the Orange Order has not helped itself. Yet, in her book The Faithful Tribe, the writer Ruth Dudley-Edwards showed that the loyal institutions were usually more focused on sipping tea and eating sandwiches than religious triumphalism.

Some unionist commentators have suggested the Orange Order could benefit from emphasising different aspects of the Battle of the Boyne, during its celebrations of that pivotal moment in British history. They point out that the Williamite Wars safeguarded the Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights, which underpins the United Kingdom’s constitution to this day and extended liberties and individual freedoms to all British people, irrespective of their religion or culture.

And the UUP MLA, Doug Beattie, captured the attitude of many moderate unionists to bonfires, when he urged organisers to remove the Republic’s national flag from the structures and ensure they are “safe and respectful”. In that way, he believes, they can avoid undermining the “identity, culture and traditions we hold dear” and instead “promote the inclusive Union we all aspire to”.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author ‘An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit‘.