‘Bonefire of the vanities’…

ELEVENTH Night bonfires are always a hot potato for debate, and attract plenty of blazing criticism. Here, Claire McNeilly speaks to a number of loyalists involved in ‘bonefires’. Newton Emerson counters some of the republican criticism here. It isn’t all about about King Billy and bigotry, and I think both republicans and loyalists sometimes have misconceptions about what drives these sectarian displays of tribal community. So why do loyalists build bonfires? PS: Send us reports about the bonfire events in your area tonight!I think one of the main reasons for loyalist bonfires has to be for the sense of belonging they create in a world of macho loyalism constantly under attack, whether fairly and unfairly, both from republicans and middle-class unionists.

Let’s face it; Eleventh Night bonfires are the domain of working-class and ‘underclass’ men and boys. The long-suffering reader might refer to them as spides. Loyalist spides, like neds and chavs, are widely disliked by most other social groups. Working class loyalists think middle class unionists and republicans are sneering down their ‘cultured’ noses at them. And, since they largely are, the enmity is fairly mutual.

Being under constant cultural attack from both opponents and sympathisers might make loyalism change, but it is more likely not to. Since it knows from experience that the gut reaction from loyalism under fire is kneejerk antagonism, the Government is trying to wean it onto something else. Call it bribery, call it ‘community development’, the NIO is trying the old ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ routine. Again.

It’s possible that developers’ bulldozers are succeeding in permanently shifting more bonfires than any Government policy that provides an alternative to the annual outlet for blowing off sectarian steam. Having said that, the developers probably paid more than £100,000 for the pleasure.

However, there seems to be a growing recognition in loyalism that it needs to change how it celebrates the Eleventh Night. The Government, sensing an opportunity, is capitalising on a perceived willingness within loyalism to shift away from paramilitarism.

While nationalists often oppose the bonfires on ideological grounds, much of the other criticism would disappear if the fires didn’t impact on everyone else’s lives so much. Many bonfires fall into the category where the average disinterested punter can say: “Leave them alone and let them get on with it, sure they’re not harming anyone.” But too many don’t. In short, they’re pissing too many people off for the ranting to stop until something changes.

Bonfires are important to loyalists for a variety of reasons, as they fulfil a number of social functions in the communities they exist in. They provide a central community aim and focus for a sustained period, the ritual of collection and protection of the material coming to a primitive tribal climax of blazing euphoria. Like Christmas day for the kids, it creates an air of expectation. Of course, not everyone joins in, but who needs everybody? Sure, even the women don’t get to join in until the thing’s built(!)

For the men in these communities, the sense of achievement after building the fires must be huge, particularly in some areas where there might not be much else to take pride in. There’s also a sense of competition that can be detected, and disappointment if a neighbouring area has a better bonfire. With a successful bonfire, loyalists have proved can still get their cultural and traditional erections up – “Women of Ulster, be ye impressed by these tall, phallic objects, for yea, thou shalt be needing cupboards put up shortly, and ye are now witnessing the ultimate manifestation of our manly DIY skills.”

Loyalists like the structures to be photographed once they’re built, as at that point you can see there’s been a lot of work and substantial skill has gone into it. Architecturally, the larger ones demonstrate that the skills loyalists have for building large semi-permanent structures didn’t disappear with the Titanic.

But before the touchpaper is lit, the piles of fuel – furniture, pallets and tyres – can resemble a dirthy, rat-infested, temporary rubbish tip, strewn in (usually) a communal or public space. The needs and rights of others are casually disregarded by hard men. The open air landfill sites that many sites in housing estates resemble is one of the main reasons so many people hate bonfires. It’s a pretty damn good reason, espcially for those who have to quietly tolerate them and pay for the damage. Efforts to clean up will be judged on their merits.

If you’re going to dent loyalist pride by taking away their toy/culture, you’ll have a job convincing the self-righteous/proud loyal Ulsterman that something else will fill the vacuum equally well and fulfil the functions a bonfire does. Unlike republicans, weaned off internment bonfires with the West Belfast Festival, loyalism seems to want to move in a different direction. It’s too early to say what it is yet, but for the republican critics slamming the funding of activities that channel loyalist activity into something more acceptable, they should remember that republicanism inspired the idea.

Less facetiously, but maybe more embarrassingly for those concerned, bonfires are something that tend to bind the men in a particular community together. Men and boys build it together, there’s probably a few generations of families there, passing on local knowledge, staying out in huts protecting it, that kind of thing. Loyalists don’t like to talk about male bonding, even if they’ll be dancing round a 50ft tall burning phallus 20 hours from now, but it happens.

What, indeed, could be more tribal? The night itself brings hundreds of people together in the semi-darkness of July, to witness an impressive sight and listen to bad rave for different reasons, whether to chat and enjoy the spectacle in a community ritual, or to get totally plastered and violent.

Then there’s all the other usual great stuff you’d expect at any outdoor summer event; drinking, shouting, singing, drugs, fighting, pissing in alleyways, dancing and falling. This is all fairly normal weekend Belfast behaviour. However, where the Eleventh Night falls down is in its deliberate exclusion of and hostility towards cultural and social outsiders. Catholics specifically, but the event fails to attract – and often alienates – huge swathes of middle class unionists. Burning tyres could create more of a stink in North Down than West Belfast.

Without doubt, the celebration is overtly sectarian and as territorial as the surrounding flags, painted kerbstones and murals indicate. The climax of the night comes when the bonfire collapses in on itself, taking the papal effigy or Irish tricolour into the flames. At a few, paramilitaries hold ‘shows of strength’, and I think funding should be withheld from these until they can demonstrate terrorist groups will stay away.

Loyalists are trying to persuade us that they are changing, and the Government and some councils are providing the incentive. I guess we’ll be able to judge the situation better in a few hours time…