15 July 2022

The vile sectarianism we saw this July 12 does nothing to help the Unionist cause

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Last weekend we held our village fete, that most culturally English of occasions. Yes, I know it’s a French word. Whatever. I manned the hoopla stall with a degree of recklessness to the rules which was I think appreciated by small children. There were two bands, cream teas correctly assembled (Devon-style) and a tug-of-war. The vicar did her rounds in a very fetching maxi cassock. I am at least half-assimilated here on the high moor. We blow-ins can still fit well at the apex of the summer calendar. Tradition modernised but still compelling.

Back in Northern Ireland, where I’m from, another cultural climax occurred just a week later with less benign aplomb.

The Twelfth of July is an annual celebration of the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II across the Boyne river in 1690. Traditionally the victory is celebrated by bonfires on the preceding eleventh night. As a kid growing up in an estate in the west of the Province, I was an enthusiastic bonfire builder, albeit without much clue about the historical significance. It was a slightly transgressive but usually healthy marathon of finding and dragging limbs of trees, including limbs still attached to trees for often a couple of miles to the bonfire site. Only Union flags hung from windows. Nothing was burned except wood.

This custom lives on in countless communities across Northern Ireland. The captivating pictures by photographer Charles McQuillan from Cave Hill, high above Belfast, shows a cityscape punctured with blazing beacons. Some of these have achieved near world record-breaking heights, being constructed almost entirely of pallets, which I have to say would have seemed like cheating to my young self after an hour spent dragging a tree branch across busy roads.

But on the ground, in a small but significant number of these bonfire sites, something darker was flowering with the flames. Pictures have emerged of bonfires bedecked with symbols of Irish republicanism, including the national flag of the Republic of Ireland. Worse still, hanging effigies of democratically elected politicians and disgusting sectarian slurs were prominent. Amongst these were ‘Kill All Taigs’ the pejorative term for Roman Catholics, who will by birth be likely to represent 50% of Northern Ireland’s population when the census numbers come out later this year. Here, offensiveness and stupidity rhyme.

All this hate casts something of a pall over the following day’s proceedings – the marching of tens of thousands of Orangemen and Women in demonstrations at different sites across the North. I always looked forward to the ‘Twelfth’ as a kid – a day out to watch the marching bands, the colours and the pageantry. During the Troubles where I grew up, Protestants were being targeted for murder in a sectarian campaign that would have made Milosevic blush. So, there was an important added dimension of solidarity and defiance in the face of a militant republican campaign to murder and bomb us out of our British identity.

It’s therefore deeply ironic, and not a little sad, that in some places where ancient hatreds still pool and stagnate, the defeat of the IRAs physical force strategy is being squandered by Loyalist bigots. When I think back to our village fete, an occasion of community solidarity and enjoyment, I can think of no-one present who would accept an argument from me that the sort of behaviour demonstrated by a minority and sanctioned by the silence of many others was in any way recognisably ‘British’.

Of course, the Twelfth will always be divisive as at its heart it is a celebration of the reformed faith – although I suspect you might be hard pushed to find anyone taking part under 30 who knew Luther as anything more than a troubled TV cop. But when the latent pro-Protestant character of some of the celebrations morphs slowly into a snarling anti-Catholic diatribe, that’s what the world sees. That’s all it sees. That’s what allows Republican agitators to break cover from their own rank hypocrisy and caricature a whole community as antediluvian racists. That’s what allows Sinn Fein politicians who continue to venerate some of the most bloodthirsty terrorist executioners to have a free pass at being on the ‘right side’.

So let’s be clear here. The sort of ‘Britishness’ that animates mouth breathers to burn their neighbours flags is not one which is recognised here in what NI Unionists call The Mainland. It’s repellent. The sort of ‘culture’ that encourages the burning of effigies of democratically elected politicians isn’t a line of tradition stretching from Guy Fawkes, it’s plain sectarianism. Both are a cancer eating away at the tolerance of people here in Great Britain who find that sort of behaviour akin to racism. 

There’s no profit in ‘whataboutery’ either. The behaviour of my community in Northern Ireland can’t be fixed or offset by pointing out the obvious flaws in others. The Orange Order can’t hide behind circumlocutions about who was on their premises when disgusting sectarian songs were sung about a dead Catholic women. They can’t wash their hands of bonfire celebrations as somehow separate from the proceedings of the following day. Unionist politicians cannot look away from this product of a breakdown in morale and cohesion in Loyalist communities and point the finger elsewhere. Get your own house in order or the roof will fall in. 

I know that tens of thousands of decent people turned out on Tuesday and watched a cultural celebration that is far removed from the behaviour of a few morons the previous evening. Far distant but not unconnected. There must be some corporate responsibility for sectarianism within the broad Unionist family.

As I’ve said before many times, headcount Protestant Unionism is not enough to save the Union, something I passionately believe in. But think of the ‘status quo’ population in Northern Ireland, much like my English friends at my local fete, looking on.  Are these displays of hatred and animosity helping or hindering a case for Unionism recognisable to our neighbours in the three other nations? As we say in these parts, ‘give your head a wobble’.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.