Beacon for hope?

“What most struck me, as a nationalist from west Belfast, was that I was not in the slightest bit apprehensive.”

Allison Morris, a journalist with the Irish News spend the 11th night touring bonfires in the loyalist heartlands of north Belfast. Her colour piece is here but I have copied and pasted the article below as subscriptions will probably be need soon.

A well done to Allison who not only braved the elements but crossed over to the other side to visit an event not seen by her as her own.

I attended the Milltown (south Belfast) bonfire on Sunday night. The fire was fierce and unfortunately the road had to be closed off. However what needs to be done here is for the local council to work with the local community to secure a tidy and safe nights festivities.

Loyalist bonfires have long been associated with tribal displays of blatant sectarianism, drunken violence and paramilitary shows of strength. As some communities attempt to change that blue-bag image Allison Morris attends two Eleventh Night events

The loyalist tradition of bonfires on the Eleventh night is one that brings nothing but fear and apprehension to those citizens of Northern Ireland who haven’t engaged in the usual holiday exodus to get away from the annual inconvenience.

Often the catalyst for drunken attacks on interface communities and tribal violence that has marked the July period for generations, these environmental eyesores cost the public purse hundreds of thousands of pounds each year in both policing and clean-up costs.

At one time the only Catholic at a bonfire would have been in the form of an effigy of whatever political/Church figure was to be burned on top of the pile of wood and tyres on that particular year.

Usually bedecked with the Irish tricolour – seen this week on top of so many ‘traditional bonfires’ – the pyre is both intimidating and offensive to nationalist neighbours.

However, a number of progressive loyalist communities have taken the lead in making the ‘cultural’ celebrations less antisocial and more family inclusive.

But while this all sounds good in practice, what is the reality?

On a rain-soaked Belfast night I didn’t hold out much hope of too many people attending the beacon events being held in some loyalist areas.

But with organisers keen to show that they really were trying to make the night open to everyone, and on this occasion that included an Irish News journalist, I put on my raincoat and braved the elements.

Tigers Bay, a stronghold long associated with the UDA and often the scene of interface violence with the neighbouring New Lodge, was our first stop.

Ironically attacks last week did not come from the nearby nationalist community but internally from loyalist residents of the area who are struggling to come to terms with the transition away from conflict.

The beacon placed in a play park at North Queen Street had been petrol-bombed the night before by rival loyalists who saw it not as progression but an erosion of their culture and a concession to the Catholic population.

With organisers struggling to have the beacon ready for the Eleventh, women and children refilled the metal structure with wood chippings by hand in the rain.

No-alcohol signs were displayed around the park and after a small fireworks display the beacon was lit with a groups of parents and small children nearby.

Former loyalist prisoner John Howcroft said the trouble surrounding the event showed that some people were still fearful of change.

“This is a slow and steady transition to peace. You can’t expect people just to change overnight,” he said.

“So OK, there were people who didn’t want the beacon – but maybe next year we can come up with something else that is acceptable. We’re getting there. It’s just not going to happen overnight.”

The next stop was a much larger family fun day at Woodvale Park at the top of the hardline Shankill Road.

En route we passed a traditional bonfire built right up at an interface, loud rave music blasting from huge speaker, bedecked with tricolours.

At Woodvale Park the scene was very different.

Large stages had bands providing entertainment for hundreds of people of all ages.

The event had been in full swing most of the day with a cross-border football match earlier between local players and a team from Dublin.

The rain poured down but umbrellas and marquees were used as shelter.

What most struck me, as a nationalist from west Belfast, was that I was not in the slightest bit apprehensive.

In fact I totally related to the event as it was very similar to my memories of the early days of the west Belfast Feile an Phobail before that became the slick operation it is today.

The beacon was placed in a playing field a short distance away and once burnt it can be removed with no damage to the playing surface and no environmental impact.

No Irish flags were to be burnt.

“We don’t need to disrespect your culture to celebrate ours,” organiser Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine said.

“It’s about embracing our culture in a safe, inclusive family friendly way and, despite the weather, which is I’m afraid out of our control, I think we’ve achieved that.

Long time political hack