If progress is to be made on dangerous bonfires, the political footballs need to be kept firmly in the bag

The bonfire is not, as you would think from all the commentary, an exclusive feature of July Orangeism. In my own Tyrone village for instance – which is predominantly Catholic in population, but broadly quite apolitical in attitude – various housing estates would traditionally compete at Halloween time to see who could build the biggest bonfire.

Yes, there were even incarnations of those bonfires that were situated rather recklessly.

Fundamentally, the concept of the bonfire is something which working classes gravitate toward because it gives a refreshing sense of purpose. A sense of unity in effort. A sense of victory over other collectives. A sense of satisfaction at a finished product.

Call it romantic nonsense if you want, but ask any person partaking in a “collection” and that is what they will describe – possibly in less flowery terms.

It is futile to attack unionist/loyalist communities about out of control bonfires from a political standpoint.

I have seen many comments to the effect that July bonfires are merely the product of an ideology that is typically low in IQ – but they are not, they are an expression of a working class with little outlet for its energy.

Nationalists and liberals piling on the unionist community and its politicians about the bonfire on Chobham Street only makes the possibility of a resolution less likely. There is a political tone to criticisms, and it solidifies the siege mentality in working class unionist Belfast that “they are chipping away at our culture”.

This debate has to be one of logic. Collectively there needs to be a genuine, rational discussion without allowing political opportunism to creep in and create solution-inhibiting hostilities.

Building an enormous bonfire on the periphery of houses is unquestionably ridiculous, but some are more concerned with using that reality to batter the unionist/loyalist community than protect the affected houses and environment. And the unionist/loyalist community sense this. So rather than partake in dialogue, there is the knee-jerk tendency to disregard discourse about the issue altogether; and proceed as things were – which benefits nobody.

This conversation cannot be had in a crude nudge nudge, smirk smirk – “look at them eejits” type of a way. Internally unionist leaders need to get around the table with the community and point out that dealing with dangerous bonfires is not about capitulating to supposed republican cultural warfare – but ensuring that family homes (within their own community) are given greater consideration than the “might” of an inanimate display.

Likewise, nationalists need to hold off on framing such issues along the lines of “for god sake unionism, have the balls to get your extremists in order”; otherwise efforts made by unionist leaders toward a reasonable conclusion are perceived as selling out to nationalist desires. And thus many don’t even try.

On a related note, whether those concerned with the ecological health of Belfast can come to terms with it or not, these bonfires are a long-standing tradition and are not going to just go away at a whim.

So rather than simply lamenting the PSNI for not forcing these constructions to be taken down pallet by pallet – which again would create an political atmosphere that only makes the community more determined to reject a common sense approach – we need to encourage community organizers to revise the competitive nature of the July bonfire.

Perhaps also it would be worthwhile for unionist/loyalist Belfast to consciously find some aspect of Orange season proceedings where people (in particular the youth) can more productively channel their enthusiasm for the occasion.

The working class wherever you go in Belfast are a proud people. When they are assigned a task that could make them the envy of other like-minded areas, they aspire toward nothing less than their absolute best.

That in my opinion is why you have these humungous bonfires. Flags and effigies may be the Machiavellian touch of more sinister elements, but fundamentally I think the magnitude of the bonfires is more to do with an honest, albeit misdirected sense of zeal.

So when reporters highlight that a July bonfire is infringing on the home life of local residents, instead of pumping up the political football, we should encourage and allow honest ground work to take its course.

As the Woodvale Festival example highlights – where a process of self-analysis has led to the development of what many consider to be an ideal model for green/orange celebrations going forward – it is much more effective than loudly condemning from the sidelines.





  • Thomas Barber

    “I have seen many comments to the effect that July bonfires are merely
    the product of an ideology that is typically low in IQ – but they are
    not, they are an expression of a working class with little outlet for
    its energy”

    Are you having a laugh, unionist politicians support loyalist bonfires and the majority of unionist/loyalist public and political representitives defend the culture of poluting the environment, destroying public property and endangering the lives and livelihoods of others who live or work around the sites of these toxic bonfires you could hardly describe them as having a low IQ. The reality is these people actually believe the law does not apply to them because they class it as culture to annually pollute the environment and destroy public and private property and expect everyone else to pay for the damage and clean up costs. Just because people were stupid once believing the world was flat or that earth was the center of the universe doesn’t mean they have to be stupid for ever, its much the same with the loyalist definition of British culture.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    “whataboutery” – check
    spurious comparisons with nationalists – check
    “let them [loyalist working classes] eat cake” – check
    blame nationalists for unionists not doing anything – check
    propose that we just ignore the problem – check

    basically an entire blog full of cliches.

    This is a basic law and order problem. Unionist politicians won’t uphold the rule of law in their constituencies, and therein lies the crux of the problem.

    And no, this isn’t a new problem. It’s always been this way. When loyalists put their shoulder to the door nobody steps up to stop it giving way. Unionists think that they have to appease this mentality in order to win votes. They may or may not be right. Either way, it is simply no basis upon which to build stable government or a stable state.

  • james

    An excellent analysis which, unusually for this topic, actually targets the cause rather than the symptom.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Could you just cut to the chase please?

    How do we tackle these problems then?

    You talk about dialogue. OK. So, who does the talking and with whom?

    You say that the unionist working class has very little outlet for its energy?!
    That flies in that face of every other justification for kid-gloves treatment of loyalist bands e.g.
    “THEY are the outlet for unionist working class energy so please cut them some slack, allow them funding from the lottery, Culture & Arts Dept and turn a blind eye to the banners, flags, tunes et al. Cheersthankyoubye….”

    I thought the arches, flag flying and kerb painting were outlets for energy too?
    And the lambegs (mainly for the older ones I suppose…).
    And pipebands.
    And public leisure centres with their summer schemes (we have loads)
    And the numerous Christian clubs that run throughout the summer.

    If you believe that comment then you’ve pulled the rug out from under people like Quincey Dougan who fights the corner of the importance of loyalist bands within the Protestant community.

    More later, I just want to hear how you square this circle first of all.

  • citizen69

    I agree a lot with this article. I’m from a loyalist estate and as a kid i used to love the weeks leading up to bonfire night. It was all about getting together with your mates to collect wood from far and wide. Trying to better the efforts of the next street or neighbourhood. Building huts and guiders from the scrap wood was the other big thrill, as well as guarding your stash from rival bonfire ‘gangs’. For us the loyalism was secondary or almost non existent. We knew a little about King Billy and liked to play drums on cardboard boxes with a couple of scrap bits of wood… and yeah, it was the middle of the Troubles and we took all the myths about catholics & the IRA as the truth but i can’t remember a ‘hatefest’ being the focus of the event for us.

    I don’t really attend bonfires any more; they seem way out of step with modern society for two reasons. Bonfires themselves are not a problem per se but In order for the tradition to survive into the 21st century they need to: 1. end the burning of flags, emblems & effigies and 2. be more environmentally aware.
    The burning of Irish flags is shameful. Apart from its disrespectful nature it also causes damage to the perception of the loyalist community. Irish flags & local politicians have nothing to do with the origins of the loyalist bonfire tradition. The burning of tyres is also a big issue. It’s not the 70’s anymore. Most people are much more aware about the environment and about recycling. When i was young we collected broken old furniture, dilapidated old sofas, tree prunings, waste wood and if you were lucky, old doors (great for building huts); all stuff that the local community were wanting rid of. There wasn’t all these industrial pallets, which i’m sure could be used over & over again, There’s still plenty of life in those things.

    I know, coming from a working class loyalist estate, that the more they see the rest of society pushing against them, the more they’ll dig their heels in and say ‘F- you, don’t tell me what to do!’. It’s probably the infamous Scottish hard-headed stubbornness in the blood. Many still have a ‘Nobody likes us, and we don’t care.’ attitude. You won’t force them into doing something by berating them, vilifying them or laughing at their bad grammar & spelling. What is needed is the end of the de-humanizing of the loyalist working class, education, and some real leadership coming forward from within it’s own ranks; both at the community level, and at the political level in the wider unionist family. At the moment the DUP & UUP offer next to none. Where are our political leaders saying that burning flags & tyres are totally unacceptable?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I can find little to disagree with in this contribution. That probably means you’re another turncoat f***ing lundy trying to wipe out all things Protestant.

    I did see pictures of responsible bonfires this year. One was a “beacon” – organised by Belfast City Council. It was a metal cage with wood (and only wood) carefully packed inside, well away from houses, no flags, no problems.

    The thing is that such “beacons” which are essentially authorised and approved probably defeat the purpose for those who see bonfire night as a massive show of strength with two fingers shown for the rule of law.

  • Jag

    I think bonfires are great; they’re a focus for the community; down our way, we have the old Irish tradition of meitheal where we all chip in with some community tasks, helping an ill farmer bring in the hay, repair the local churches, clean up local amenities, that sort of thing. I think bonfires foster the same sense of community.

    Obviously some of the negatives aren’t welcomed, by ussuns or as you indicate by some of themmuns.

    In fact, I think bonfires are such a great thing that ussuns should start our own 11th night tradition to build small, local beacons which are lit in the hope of a better shared future for us all. It would also give ussuns something positive to do on this public holiday and not have it defined as the negative to what themmuns are doing. Street parties, sporting events, feile – today should be a holiday for us all. It’s not tradition though? Well, all traditions start someplace.

  • murdockp

    as a nationalist both communities should obviously be allowed to express their culture, but only in a way that complies with the law. large bonfires are illegal. and the law clearly says so.

    the loyalists need to look closely ate guy fawkes night in the UK. the big fires are left to the die hards like Lowestoft and the sectarianism has bee removed with just good old having fun and fireworks.

    this is the direction the political leaders need to take 11th night large bonfires, they are illegal and the law must be upheld

  • Granni Trixie


    Sorry to be off post but I have to ask: is that your real name? If it is I envy you such an interesting moniker. Some people have all the luck.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    Just a cheeky wee point, but the Scots hard headedness could easily be interpreted as a very ‘Irish’ stereotype too, the reaction to conscription and the execution of the Easter Uprising leaders are a prime example of digging-in the heels.

    Dairmaid MacCulloch in his ‘History of Christianity’ went further and suggested that without English interference Ireland could have been as “Protestant as the Dutch Republics…”

    No way to prove it of course but he was suggesting an inherently Irish characteristic of stubbornness and reaction (in the nicest possible way of course).

  • Tochais Siorai

    It’s a rubbish name.