Bonfires & the leadership opportunities they present

If you want to know how the flag protest movement was created, then look no further than Chobham Street in East Belfast.

Today it was announced that the Housing Executive has moved to board up more than 50 family homes in the area as a result of a loyalist bonfire sited near to the properties. It is feared that the homes could be in real danger of being set alight or seriously damaged due to the close proximity of the fire.

When discussing the issue on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show this morning, a loyalist caller remarked that houses should not be built near the bonfires…..

Mick may lay some of the blame at the door of the palletts, but I lay the blame firmly at the doors of the Unionist politicians and Loyal Order leaders who have failed abysmally to give leadership to grassroots unionist communities.

Listening to the contributions of unionist politicians on the matter on The Nolan Show this morning was revealing.

Danny Kennedy, DRD Minister, was quick to state that legislation to create some order around bonfires was “a non-starter” whilst claiming that “….the Alliance Party….in many ways contributed to all of the community tensions by their actions at Belfast City Hall taking down the Union Flag. That’s what this comes back to.”

So. To be clear. According to UUP Minister, Danny Kennedy, 50 families in an overwhelmingly unionist community being inconvenienced by loyalists seeking to light a bonfire are, in fact, suffering the consequences of a decision by the Alliance Party on Belfast City Council, because there is no history of bonfire-related issues prior to the flag protests commencing in December 2012.

Meanwhile, in Carrickfergus, the Nazi flags may have come down, but they’re still whistlin’ Dixie in spite of the intervention of the local PUP representative, Gareth Cole. Apparently, the loyalist party’s negotiation efforts proved unable to secure the removal of the Confederate Flag. Clearly some loyalists have reacted badly to the decision by legislators in the US state of South Carolina to remove the Confederate Flag from State Capitol buildings in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre.

Alas, young Gareth, who in February 2014 scaled lamp posts in and around Carrickfergus to erect loyalist flags, was able to proudly inform the Newsletter that the Nazi flags will now be burnt atop the bonfire– presumably alongside flags and emblems associated with the Irish nationalist and Catholic community.

Meanwhile, the Orange Order, who organise and run the 12th July celebrations which are inextricably linked to the curtain raising 11th Night Bonfires, remain silent.

As is the case regarding their pursuit of contentious parade routes and defence of the divisive practice of erecting flags in mixed- or even majority nationalist- areas, the Orange Order appear oblivious to their obligations in a fractured society, and to how that abdication of responsibility has left their own community struggling to come to terms with new realities.

But let’s enter into an imaginary world, one in which the political and cultural leaders of unionism actually took seriously their roles as leaders.

Imagine were the local DUP MP, Gavin Robinson, to issue a joint statement with the Grand Master of the Orange Order, Edward Stevenson, calling on loyalists to dismantle the Chobham Street bonfire for the benefit of local residents, and asking the PSNI to intervene in the event of a negative response from the bonfire builders?

Come to think of it, given that the 11th Night bonfires are inextricably linked to the Twelfth parades, wouldn’t it be an unprecedented act of leadership by the Orange Institution were the Grand Master to call for all 11th Night bonfires to be bereft of tyres AND any flags, symbols and emblems of the Other community, and to oppose funding for any bonfires which breach these simple guidelines? A case of seeking to prevent the pollution of both the environment and young minds?