“Mammy, why do we not have a flag on our house?”

Mairia Cahill writes on her impressions of visiting a bonfire site on the lower Shankill yesterday, and how a child’s eye view, unencumbered by the narrative framing of cultural matters, helped her see another side to the celebrations of The Twelfth.

A week ago, I caused consternation amongst some of the hardline Loyalist community for raising the issue of flags flying from lampposts. I asked was there any “need” to fly large Union Jacks from in an effort to understand where this section of the community was coming from.

For this, I was told that I had “offended the entire community”, that my “mask had slipped”, and that I was a “republican scumbag” and one person hoped that I would get a particular message on a specific bonfire this year.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have many friends from all religious and political backgrounds. I do however, like to debate, so that people, including myself, can gain a better sense of understanding.

With the exception of Jamie Bryson, who gave up his time for an interview, few were willing to have “hard conversations”, or entertain a difference in view – As Twitter is unrepresentative of the real world, I wanted to speak with real Loyalists.

With this in mind, I accepted an invitation from the Lower Shankill to attend their family fun day.

I collected my 4 year old daughter from daycare and drove past Camp Twaddell (which, lets not beat about the bush, costs the public a fortune and is a bit of an eyesore at times), and turned down the Shankill Road.

Now, I’m not in the habit of having political discussions in front of my daughter, so, when I discovered she even knew the word “flag”, I was a bit surprised.

She was asking me where the “party was” and, looking up at the bunting on the Shankill her voice raised a few octaves as she squealed in delight “Mammy follow the flags, follow the flags!”, and then; “those flags are beautiful Mammy, they criss cross on the road, their arms must be tired putting them up.”

It took a four year old to point out to me that flags are about perception, both in intent in erecting, and in that feeling when looking at them – you’re either bothered, or you’re not.

I’ve seen it in other mixed estates over the years and an uneasiness always surrounds this time of year. I still don’t get the importance of flags – for either side, but I’m not necessarily offended by them either.

On some occasions I view it as territorial, mostly when associated with paramilitary trappings. Mostly, it doesn’t affect me personally.

Years ago, when I played in Ballymurphy, when Springhill Housing estate was built, kerbs were painted green white and orange, every lamppost had a flag, and big green white and orange letters spelled out “IRA” on every lamppost pole.

20150710_163409Lower Shankill ran an organised festival type day. The waft of the burger van brought that familiarity of outdoor family events, and little rows of shoes lined up on the grass outside the brightly coloured bouncy castles.

A larger inflatable duelling course kept the older kids occupied.

A couple of feet away from me a two year old child with ketchup all over his face ran over with a packet of space raiders in his hands, whooping and laughing to himself as he tried to scare the seagulls.

Adults walked around with black bin bags keeping the green field tidy, and families sat down on the grass together. Neighbours swopped news and gossip, and the men stood awkwardly around the edges, some with steward bibs on.

Years ago I worked many similar events during Feile an Phobail, and this one was well run and well supervised. The big bonfire loomed on the side of the field, kids periodically scaling up it.

The “boney” this year was erected in consultation with the Fire Service, who advised how far away it needed to be from houses so it wouldn’t cause damage, and to their credit, the community complied with the height restriction this year.

There were no effigies, and no sectarian banners. I counted three flags, one a Union flag, and the other two paramilitary flags. Not my cup of tea, but it’s the reality for that community.

The person who invited me was apologetic, I told him there was no need, I wasn’t offended, but I would like to see the day when they were the exception rather than the norm.

My daughter didn’t know what the bonfire was, and I didn’t know how to explain. She thought it was a mammoth climbing frame and was a bit put out when I refused to let her climb it.

She was mollified when I let her sit on the lower pallet and get her picture taken. There she was, sitting with drumsticks in her hand beating away at a Union Jack coloured toy drum. ‘One for the scrapbook’ I thought to myself.

I had intended to write a piece which pulled together Loyalist thinking, until that moment. I was going to write about how Jamie referred to a “defiance” within the community, and how there was a “fear” that their culture was being stripped from them bit by bit.

I was going to delve into the thinking behind the kids who don’t give a toss how the Chobham street bonfire is causing distress to the residents there, and a fortune to the taxpayer.

20150710_170326I could have written about the completely inadequate response and an unwillingness to enforce the law, or the toxic fumes from tyres causing damage to health and the environment.

I was also intending to write about how, when I tweeted the pic of myself at the bonfire on the Shankill, how it was met with outrage from two Sinn Fein members, most notably Mairead Farrell Youth Group member Kathy Crawford who decided that amongst other things my going to the bonfire was an attack on Sinn Fein.

I was going to write about how despite Sinn Fein urging people to have “uncomfortable conversations”, and “reach out” to other sections of the community, some of their members who haven’t a clue about the origins of republicanism, have no intentions of reaching out just yet.

I was intending to write about how the “fair plays for going over” from the Loyalist community on Twitter were welcome, and I was going to urge caution to other areas to not let themselves down once the fires are lit, the drink goes in and the wit goes out.

I’ve decided instead to focus on the positive. The children I met today were not triumphant, but children who were having a great time playing away, and who saw the bonfire as a bit of excitement. Those children live in one of the most underprivileged areas in Belfast.

Yes, some of that is down to what I term “community control” – but today, the community, with the help of funding, provided a day they are likely to remember fondly as they grow older.

My own daughter enjoyed herself. She continued beating her union jack drum until bedtime. And as she was going over to sleep, mulling the days events over in her head, she said “Mammy, why do we not have a flag on our house?”

That question, like the ones I tried to get to the bottom of within the Loyalist Community, will take longer to answer.

I hope those who celebrate the twelfth have a happy, peaceful, and ‘without a hitch’ day, and that those who don’t celebrate it enjoy their downtime. More than anything, I hope that those children today stay free from prejudice as they grow, and become confident leaders of tomorrow.

When you are confident, you do not need to be triumphant, and when you are made to feel comfortable, you do not need to feel inferior.

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  • Trevorabh

    Wow, that’s a different take from what we’re used to reading about bonfires. An attitude like this to approaching the (what I consider) unsavoury elements of the eleventh night such as tyres and flags and building without due care works far better than the mudslinging of previous posts. Mairia also mentioned the drink in, wit out worry.

  • Gingray

    Great post, and welcome reminder of the positive community aspects bonfire night can bring. BCC have been doing a fantastic job on the ground, and there are great people at the community level there.

  • willieric

    Very good piece. Troublemakers unfortunately attract publicity. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland citizens are honest and law-abiding, whatever their political preference. They have no need to feel inferior. They just need leaders with less political baggage, who do not despise each other.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    That was a very pleasurable read not least because it is about a child’s enjoyment at attending any event like this. That there is an impetus to stage these community carnivals peripheral to the main event demonstrates that there is a grass roots desire to open up what is seen as insular, exclusive and aggressively ‘slap it intae ye’. Thanks for sharing the refreshingly hopeful and positive experience. It shows the benefits of seeing ourselves through the eyes of a child. Pieces like this restore faith in humanity and make Slugger less like grumpy old git club.

  • Zig70

    Wouldn’t this be just a lovely wee place if we all turned a blind eye to the paramilitary flags, arson, theft, effigies etc. As the Specials said, “if your friends a racist then you’re not my friend”.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    works far better

    Can you define “works” for me please ?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Wouldn’t this be just a lovely wee place if we saw the inherent positivity in the event that Mairia attended and celebrated it on its own merits? Wouldn’t this be just a lovely wee place if easily recognised members of so called ‘Republican Royalty’ freely attended such events and not take or receive offence? Wouldn’t this be just a lovely wee place if the entirety of ‘Orangefest’ were more like this? If ‘Orangefest’ were then your paramilitary flags, arson etc would eventually disappear and this would be just a lovely wee place. Nothing happens outside a context but waiting for your opponent to blink first allows that context to persist indefinitely. The Specials wrote what they wrote in the context of the time. ‘If your friend’s a racist then invite him/her over to meet my non white friends” expresses a higher principle.

  • Trevorabh

    Works as in the obvious cooperation that has reduced the height of the bonfire from last year, which was massive, in an effort to be more fire safe. The likes of Monkstown works well with the old Newtownabbey council.

  • Aziz Seid

    I’ve overheard several sectarian comments in the town today when I was only there for about an hour. Is that positive? I kept quiet, like we always have to. It’s such a beautiful wee “country”.

  • Zig70

    I absolutely disagree that bringing a racist to meet non-white friends is a higher principle. That’s a bizarre moral. The only saving grace in that senario is often the racist hasn’t the strength of their convictions to cause a disturbance and usually waits until surrounded by those tolerant. The higher principle would be to confront the racist and tell them it’s unacceptable.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Surely if a bonfire is organised in a respectful and peaceful fashion it deserves praise?

    If so, then surely bonfires that behave to the contrary (and which you are not happy with) deserve criticism?

    Which of the recent posts have been unfair to the point that they could be considered ‘mudslinging’?

  • Lucy

    They don’t know what they celebrate. They burnt flags which is criminal .They don’t know the colours in the flag. Big freedom and goverment axept it.

  • No1celt

    That wasn’t the B Specials?

  • Gareth Murray

    So racism is confined to East Belfast is it?

    Mairia was invited, she went and reported on it. Have you ever considered the possibility that many within the loyalist community aren’t actually “bigots”?

  • plainlyspeaking

    A thoughtful piece, thank you Maria. I grew up on the Shankill and our house was one of only a few that never flew a flag. The peer pressure among the other kids I ran around with was intense. The suspicion was that we must be ‘Fenians’!
    I asked my parents the same question young Miss Cahill asked, “why do we not have a flag on our house?”
    Fifty years on, I have never forgotten my parents response: “If they want to know what we are, they can get up and follow us to church on Sunday mornings”.
    Sadly, loyalism has distanced itself irreparably from Protestantism and that has far more to do with the dilution of identity felt by loyalist communities than any perceived external vilification.

  • mickfealty

    I think you are up to your usual tricks Zig, by throwing in a few general barbs and offering as little as possible in the way of argument. But let me try to take you up on this as constructively as possible. [Apologies, I’ve been delving into Greek philosphy a lot since the onset of the Grexit crisis].

    Plato talks early on in The Republic [363a] about the difference between Justice and Injustice. Plato builds his whole text against Adeimantus’ idea that you can acquire the “greatest possible advantage by having it both ways: act unjustly while preserving the outward appearance of being just, instead of acting justly while risking the outward appearance of injustice”.

    Earlier Thrasymachus claims that injustice is a source of strength, whereas Socrates argues that it is a source of disunity and therefore weakness. We have lived in a society where injustice on both sides has been a rallying call for as long as I can recall. But Plato’s Socrates argues that justice (rather than dwelling on injustice) is a pre-condition for unity of action.

    It suits our character as active human beings to have some means to regulate our differences, rather than persisting with the fantasy that we can obliterate all differences. Followed through to its logical conclusion we get injustices committed (as in the continued burning of Orange Halls) in the name of well, someone else’s imagined injustice.

    Plato’s objection might be your own (bigoted?) objection to a whole subset of culture in our society is an injustice in itself in the sense that it is not a search for a just solution. The result, is further tension, pressure and ultimately further disunification. It’s a trap for the weak, in other words.

  • PeterBrown

    I thought she pointed out that there were no flags burned at least on this bonfire but that fact did not suit your point so you simply ignored it?

  • Robin Keogh

    Tens of thousands of Protestants will celebrate the twelfth today. The vast majority doing so peacefully and respectfully. To all and Sundry i wish for sunshine on your back, joy in your heart and peace in your mind. Have a great day.

  • Nevin

    I think Plato would have enjoyed the 11th Night bonfires:

    He was a wise man who invented beer.

    and the Twelfth:

    Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

    As for that great city of Holywood:

    This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.

    He would have had a good word (or two) for my mentor, the late Ray Davey:

    Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others. ..

    You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

    And then there’s this:

    Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.

    We have two States in mind …

  • Zig70

    time is my excuse for the lack of content. The sense of injustice is amplified in social media and I see my kids growing up with shared facebook posts of effigies and flags and getting a real sense that they are hated. A 4yr old might not see it but the questions will be different in a few years.

  • chrisjones2

    Its now reported that DSD paid £10k for protective measures in Chobham Street and that 30 firemen were kept on site to stop the local ‘community’ burning down their neighbours houses.

    Who authorised all this public money to wasted to placate these thugs? The fire was on a DSD site so why wasn’t it removed or made safe?

    At a time of austerity this is scandalous and the Treasury will doubtless be aware that waste like this utterly undermines any suggestion of concessions for NI

  • Aziz Seid

    The guardian – Loyalists linked to 90 per cent of race crime

    Thanks for deleting my comments too fascist editors.

    Just leave the comment section open for positivity towards the article shall we? Again, utterly pathetic. I brought my kid along to see these comments and you deleted them. Please think of the children!

  • Nevin

    Tomorrow, Robin, never on a Sunday.

  • PeterBrown

    It is a non sequitur that because 90% of racists are loyalists all loyalists are racists Aziz – see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153145238482690.1073741839.205782262689&type=3. So let’s keep the comments accurate shall we?

  • Lorcs1

    Whilst community events like the one detailed in the article are great and are to be welcomed, the fact remains this is just a sideshow leading up to the main event. Would Mairia be as keen to take her Daughter to the bonfire that night? Would she feel as safe and as welcomed? Would that inter-community spirit remain?

    The fact remains that the vast majority of bonfires are hugely sectarian affairs. Flags are burnt, effegies are burnt, election posters are burnt, sectarian songs about killing taigs/fenians provide the soundtrack, loyalist paramilitaries perform shows of strength. A bouncy castle and a burger van do not excuse magically turn this into some sort of cultural wonder.

  • Robin Keogh

    Sorry nev

  • mickfealty

    It wasn’t me Aziz, but it might help you in future if you look up Slugger’s moderation policy: http://sluggerotoole.com/re/moderation-policy/. I’m planning a sort of open discussion of this policy on YouTube for moderators and readers alike, perhaps over the summer.

    One tip is that you strengthen your pov considerably if you include links to your point of view. Makes it harder for others to claim they have ‘refuted’ your view point, and gives you a harder edge to work with.

  • Jag

    Today is a public holiday in Northern Ireland; themmuns have their parades, commemorations, rallies, church services,band playing, hymns, speeches, (tiny number) paramilitary displays and this follows the lighting of the bonfires/”beacons” last night which was accompanied by drinking, singing, socialising and (a significant amount of) hatred towards ussuns and of course there was previously the building of the bonfires and the hit-and-miss guardianship of the unlit bonfires until the 11th night. There’s the arches and the flags and the painted kerbstones. That’s what themmuns have on this public holiday.

    What do ussuns have? Why don’t ussuns have bonfires (small-scale, family-oriented street-party events, music, performances, might be a model to others) as beacons of hope for our joint futures? We could light them on 11th in sympathy with our neighbours. And today, why don’t we have major sports events, feile etc. Why is ussuns sole contribution today, a scattering of protests with mis-spelt slogans on sheets of A4 printed up on the bedroom printer, against a tiny number marches?

    Just as the Christians usurped Saturnalia and made it Christmas, ussuns should be able to adapt this public holiday, civilise the more heathen elements of themmuns “culture” and create an altogether superior culture which we can all enjoy. All it needs is a modicum of leadership from ussuns…

  • Can you clarify what type of posts and effigies you are talking about? I get the idea that you are painting the old animal farm “four legs good, two legs bad” nonsense. Any check of social media finds it awash with sectarian hatred. I don’t think one community are worse than the other. A quick check around this site will highlight no end of casual bigotry trying to put on the clothing of high minded debate. I don’t think it helps to blame one community for all society’s ills. This is contributing to the sense of injustice and this puts people’s backs up further. We need to try and de-escalate the whole thing by depriving extremists on either side of the oxygen required for the fire to burn, as opposed to constantly fanning the flames with our own closed minded agenda.

  • Zig70

    I don’t buy the we are all as bad as each other platitude. Any hate crimes should create a social red line. I don’t have a problem with bonfires or even effigies. King James would be appropriate, I wouldn’t complain about Gerry but others might. Though explain to my 7yr old why his clubs jersey is on a bonfire. Tricolours, Vatican flags, anything that directly relates to the neighbours and how the message is received is probably more weighted that the intent. I am concerned that my kids are growing up feeling that they are hated and I don’t think there is another example in NI of such a widespread and public display of hate.

  • I agree that in terms of a very public display of hatred, it is pretty deplorable, and that it is very difficult to draw a direct comparison in terms of similar displays by Republicans.

    When i was getting at everyone being as bad as each other, i am talking more about perceptions from a particular point of view. From a Unionist view point, I look at what is said online on this site and the attitudes that are taking hold in certain parts of our society like in our universities. It is increasingly in vogue to look down your nose at Loyalists. People are cock-a-hoop when stats come out showing the growing attainment gap between working class catholic and protestant kids. Loyalists are persistently portrayed as racist thugs when the problem is much more nuanced than that. Sentiment abounds about how much better the world will be when Unionism more generally is reduced to a powerless minority, as if all our problems are the fault of Unionism.

    It may not be a flaming GAA shirt, but the outcome is just the same. It is aimed at making people feel small and worthless, and trying to mark one group out as superior to the other. I just get a bit fed up with cheap political point scoring and the outrage and counter outrage that seems to endlessly up the sectarian ante.

  • Chingford Man

    Thank you for writing such an interesting and thought-provoking article, Mairia. I hope we will see more of your writing.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    THAT is a belter of a thought Jag. Absolute screamer. Maybe even a game changer.

  • Michael Lynch

    Interesting read…..just one question Mairia, did you explain what K.A.T. stood for to your daughter as you were on your walk about?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Enjoyed the child’s eye view aspect of it.

    After more than two decades now of the Republican-led campaign to put a squeeze on Protestant working class culture (Adams admitted in 1996 in Athboy to having spent 3 years working to produce “scene changes”, starting by whipping up conflict over Drumcree), we do need more of this kind of broader view of the events and celebrations.

    Republican politicians are just continuing their “armed struggle” against Ulster Protestants by other means. It’s no coincidence that Adams started the agitation campaign against Twelfth celebrations in earnest in the early 90s, around the time of the first IRA ceasefire. It’s alternative red Brit-bashing meat for the insatiable Republican wolf to get its teeth into, after the failure of the terrorist campaign. It has some success in provoking conflict, which reminds Catholics why they need aggressively partisan community ‘defenders’ like SF and reinforces the siege mentality in Protestants that keeps them where SF want them – defensive and annoyed.

    Like with George Osborne, some admire the “clever politics” of this kind of strategy. But you have to ask them, what ultimately does it achieve, other than short term political gain for them? What about society? Just as Osborne is impoverishing millions of Britons in order to put Labour in a political corner – oh what a clever wheeze, Gideon – Republicanism seeks to keep Northern Ireland in a state of perpetual antagonism in order to make SF’s own aggressive approach relevant.
    SF believes things are achieved by winning a struggle against an opponent; and it’s identified Ulster Protestants as that opponent. It serves SF well; but at the cost of society as a whole.

    But SF doesn’t care because, like all crazed idealists, they disdain the present, it is just the gravel in the path to a glorious future. So they don’t properly engage with making things work for today.

    The lives of everyone in Northern Ireland are currently held in this ante-chamber to a New Better Ireland. Northern Ireland is a waiting room to them. It’s no wonder it’s beset with boredom, irritation, negativity, atrophy and a lack of long term vision.

  • kensei

    I appreciate that there are probably nice aspects to it, but I am equally sure there were nice aspects to internment bonfires and we are all better off they have been replaced with something less destructive.

    The solution to this is to follow the money. Rather than my rates being spent on policing endless parades and cleaning up the damage and environmental mess after bonfires, push the costs onto the communities and organisations that want them. Happy to fund a main parade and a few events in Belfast. After that, you are on the hook for the application costs (including dealing with objections), policing and clean up unless you can supply a suitably positive cost/benefit. This is standard for things like concerts and football marches.

    I imagine where there is real interest there’ll be enough subscriptions to cover costs. The rest will die off after a bit. Precedent has already been established – I believe the Ardoyne Fleadh was denied funding after last years minor incident.