I am a long-time admirer of the British.
The British codified many of the sports we all enjoy (and I love sports). Nearly everyone in Ireland supports one British-based football team or other, and a culture of fair play has always defined a British attitude to sports.
The British provide us with the richest of contributions to all aspects of the Arts. Many of our most cherished stars of television, film and theatre are British and the offerings of the British to music across the genres has been remarkable.
As an educator, I have always found the English language a joy to teach, and it has many masters (British and otherwise) who have provided us with great works of literature.
British inventors and explorers did much to further our knowledge of the world around us and the peoples and creatures sharing this planet.
The British form of parliamentary democracy has provided a model copied by many other democracies worldwide. British political thinkers have shaped much of our political thinking whilst its social movements have inspired and found common cause with many from other lands, including Ireland.
Yet I am not naïve. As an Irish republican, and a student of history and politics, there are a lot of things I could also find in which to object to regarding Britain’s contribution to the world, and to Ireland in a more specific context.
But none of that should or would detract from the core British values and characteristics which define a people, as opposed to an establishment or successive government elites.
In sum, I like the British. They are my neighbours- and by ‘they’ I mean the British of not only Britain but also Belfast, Bangor and nearer to my home.
None of these positive British values, attributes or characteristics were on display yesterday in what constituted an appalling Hatefest demonstrating all that is wrong with the distorted sense of Britishness which continues to define far too many within political unionism.
The culture of burning all things associated with one’s neighbour is not one worth cherishing nor preserving, and certainly not worth using public funds to sustain.
The Irish National flag, Sinn Fein and SDLP election posters (and those of Eirigi candidates), GAA club flags, an Antrim GAA office sign, effigies of politicians hanging from gallows, statues to the Virgin Mary. All made their way onto bonfires during Orangefest, to be burned before crowds gathered in their hundreds including young children.
Across the north, the slogan KAT, meaning Kill All Taigs, took pride of place on the Irish National flags adorning these fires, sending a clear message to the festival revelers standing to watch the fires burn.
None of that was new. Expressing a very public hatred of the Other is a long established mid-summer tradition within political unionism. For too many, including the political elites within unionism, it has become a defining characteristic.
But this year was different.
The Other, that has long been the object of Hate, has now become a mongrel beast with many heads.
The Hate once reserved for the Irish Catholic exclusively is now directed at a wider range of Other communities, including ethnic minorities and homosexuals.
The Rainbow Flag of the LGBT community was burnt from at least one bonfire.
Across the North, bonfires were peppered with the yellow signature of Alliance Party posters for the party’s European election candidate, Anna Lo.
“Anna Lo ate my dog” screamed out in massive letters from one bonfire. No doubt many children present needed the intricacies of that statement explained to them by the adults who accompanied them to the festival.
The National flags of at least three other states, the Vatican, Palestine and Pakistan, were burned, whilst a photograph of children playing beside a large sign proclaiming “FUCK THE GAZA STRIP” at an east Belfast bonfire told a thousand stories.
This particular bonfire was located in the middle of a street. Flags to be burned were joined by an effigy of local Sinn Fein councillor, Niall O’Donnghaile. The bonfire is close to the interface wall with the minority catholic Short Strand area which has been the target of sustained attacks by loyalists over recent years.
The middle of the First Minister’s constituency.
Just think about that for a bit.
In Antrim, “WEE R NOT RACIST JUST DON’T LIKE COTTON PICKING NIGGAS” was scrawled in large letters on a massive Irish National flag prepared for burning, with the sentiment repeated on a wooden sign at the base of the bonfire.
The racist sentiments so loudly proclaimed from the bonfires echoed the racist abuse dished out to Anna Lo on social media over the past year and further confirmed the trend of racist violence and abuse directed at ethnic minority communities in working class loyalist districts in recent years.
Who now can still hold to the already dubious line rejecting the reality that a deep racist streak runs alongside base sectarian assumptions within loyalist political culture?
The apologists for the Hate will feign outrage, as is their wont. The PUL are being persecuted; it is culture and tradition; it’s only kids who engage in the more excessive elements of the Hate; it’s the fault of the Others for not allowing the PUL to fly as many flags and march as many contentious roads as they want.
But, this Twelfth morning, more and more people are aware of the reality that the supremacist mentality continuing to define political unionism’s approach to its neighbours stands apart as the root cause of our political difficulties.
That supremacist mentality defines an attitude to the traditional Other and means that Unionist parties continue to struggle with the outworkings of a Good Friday Agreement which ushered in a new era of equality, partnership and parity of esteem as the only possible foundation for a genuinely shared future for Northern Ireland.
Significantly, in the light of the First Minister’s comments about not trusting Muslims, denying the reality of racist motives for a clearly racist campaign in east Belfast, and political unionism’s long-established hostility towards the LGBT community, it is clearer than ever before that political unionism’s problem with the other Others is worsening.
Britishness should not be about asserting a superior place for one’s people, culture or identity (any more than Irishness should be that), yet the graduated response strategy announced in an Orange Hall by the PUL Front has clearly indicated a desire to continue down the supremacist road to nowhere.
The advice implicit in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s rebuke of Gregory Campbell in the House of Commons this week will fall on ears long since deafened.
Instead of an inclusive, positive, benign expression of a proud political and cultural community, the decision has been taken to continue to define ‘British’ in our local context in a malign, reactionary and deliberately antagonistic manner.
And so the drums will continue to beat.
We Are The People.
Here we stand, we can do no other.