Protestant Identity, Vulnerability and Bonfires.

Chris Jenkins writes for us about his experiences touring some bonfires last summer….

The cameraman runs up towards the bonfire. The wooden pallets tower over him. Teenagers begin to light the colossal structure with flaming torches.

“He’s gone too close”, I think straight away.

The fire started to move quickly, and the young men lighting it stayed a step ahead, using their torches to light the petrol in the middle of the wooden structure.

One of the teenagers who we met earlier in the day and had chatted with about filming during the evening sees our cameraman. He swings around, flaming torch in hands:

“F**kin put that camera down. F**k off”.

He, and ten others, surround the cameraman. There is shoving and screaming and everything is a mess. I try and calm them down.

“They’re not the BBC I swear. They’re making a film. Remember – we spoke earlier. They’re not the BBC”.

“Get the f**k out of here, f**k away off”, they continued, “Delete the footage”.

I push the cameraman away to make some distance. Eventually the group steps back and with finger pointing and threats they leave us.

The bonfire swallows up the Irish flags and the electoral posters of Naomi Long of the Alliance Party. I get the film crew to their car and I make my way home.

This all took place on Chobham Street in East Belfast last summer. 54 houses were boarded up by the Council in the build-up to the 11th Night because they were worried that the bonfire was too big and poised a threat to near-by houses. The incredible response of the Council and police was not to demand the bonfire was reduced in size and moved away from homes, but rather to board up houses and recommend residents to leave.

Unsurprisingly the media picked up on the story and ran a number of critical pieces. For many in the ‘Protestant Loyalist community’ this represented another example of the media unfairly representing ‘Protestant culture’. So antipathy towards the media was high that night. Perhaps running into the middle of it (despite thinking we’d carefully paved the way earlier in the day) wasn’t the best idea.

Distrust of the media clearly runs deep. “You sh*t on us every time”, were the words of one man at Cluan Place earlier in the afternoon. In the shadow of that huge barricade wall, many times heightened and reinforced, that splits Cluan Place from Short Strand, he gave us a tirade of how the media has negatively portrayed the Protestant working classes for years.

“The flag protests was another one. We are just protecting our culture. Why don’t you shine a light on that lot over there? Ill show you the golf balls at the back of my house. They come over near every night. You never report that”.

He definitely has a point – often Loyalist communities are patronized, demonized, caricatured and ultimately demonised by the likes of the BBC, often unfairly, and in a sensationalized manner. I’d like to point out that I’m not from the media, and am from the ‘Protestant community’ in East Belfast. I have no interest in reinforcing stereotypes or writing a negative view as the man at Cluan Place argued.

But sometimes they don’t help themselves. For me this man at Cluan Place, and the young men later in the night, and the many people who were aggressive to us because of the sight of a camera, epitomise the intense vulnerability within Protestant working class communities. Anything that challenges them, or their culture, is a threat. In this case last July, and in many other examples, the response to ‘threat’ has been aggression, intimidation, and retreating into self-contained and secure ideas of identity.

It’s hard not to also see through these thin narratives of culture and tradition and see vulnerability. There is so little leadership to shape a narrative about the place of the Protestant community in a new Northern Ireland that they have reverted to an almost fevered reverence to anything that that resembles (or is named as) ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’. The vulnerability is so evident in every Irish flag burnt, and in the burning of papal symbols, posters and effigies of political opposition. And for the 12th, the very act of marching down a street where you aren’t wanted is an expression of vulnerability. The triumphalism it is coated in is just a coping mechanism.

Aside, none of this vulnerability/triumphalism happens in isolation around the marching season and the bonfires in July. Take the Flag protests a few years. Logic didn’t really come into it. The response was dictated not by the facts, but by emotion – principally vulnerability – “We’re loosing out to them again”. And, of course, this emotion was also manipulated and exploited for political opportunity among other reasons.

It needs to be recognised that many people within Loyalism have made huge sacrifices and taken significant personal risks within their communities to push Loyalism away from these mentalities and to approach identity with a more nuanced view. But there remains a lack of engagement with how the political settlements post 1998 can and are working to the benefit of Protestant working class communities. The predominant narrative is one of loss, particularly in comparison to Republican gain. In this environment attempts to approach something as complex as identity are incredibly difficult.

Returning to the 11th night. The film crew left with (unsurprisingly) an incredibly negative view of ‘Protestant culture’ and about Northern Ireland more generally. It’s sad particularly as they were here to make a really positive film about the Northern Irish peace process. They happened to be here over the 12th week and given how important the week is to Protestant communities they thought they’d try to film some of it.

On one hand people need to acknowledge and respect that there is a very real and understandable vulnerability within the ‘PUL’ community. As a society we need to consider this, work with this, recognize fears and address them. In return the PUL leadership needs to encourage the community to self examine. ‘Culture’ needs to be challenged. ‘Culture’ is not absolutist. It is not beyond criticism.

It is my firm belief that Northern Irish society will not move forward without challenging our identity – and that goes for Catholic communities too. Identities constructed in opposition and in conflict to each other form obvious barriers to people coming together.

Like everything else in Northern Ireland we view ‘culture’ in a dichotomous way. We have two ‘cultures’, two histories, two narratives, two education systems, two sets of political aspirations. For years we’ve talked about ‘Shared Future’ with worryingly little results. Perhaps a better approach to ‘Shared Future’ is developing a sense of ‘Shared Past’ and ‘Shared Identity’. Instead of viewing culture and history as mutually exclusive we should be developing a sense of joint roots. Our history interweaves so completely, and our family lines are interconnected often tighter than people like to admit. Instead of identifying with one side over the other why aren’t we working to connect our young people with the entirety of their background?

Of course people will not change their identifies quickly, easily, or without resistance. I’m not suggesting that people should just reevaluate who they are and then the problems would all go away. What I am suggesting is that what ‘we’ – society – at Government, Council, and at community/voluntary levels and beyond – don’t continue to entrench division by reinforcing our cultures as separate, dichotomous, and in isolation. Our leaders need to be part of a process of engagement that reconstructs how we look at identity – principally by opening it up instead of dividing and closing it down.

Some of this has been happening around the big commemorations – the hundred year anniversaries of the 1912 Ulster Covenant commemoration and the to be 1916 Easter Rising commemoration. But often these are still presented as dichotomous. If people from the ‘other side’ engage in the events they are ‘taking part in the events of the Other side’ – not in events that are also theirs. If we are to approach culture in a more nuanced way, and a more open way, then we need ownership in cultures, not just occasional engagement with the ‘Other sides’ cultures and traditions. One good example of where this has been happening has been around creating ownership of the Irish language within Protestant communities who traditionally saw the language as a reserve for only the Catholic community. This should be built upon and valued.

Unfortunately in East Belfast last July I doubt there was one Catholic present. If there was I’m sure they kept their head down. I can’t imagine the burning of Irish flags, and the Billy Boys on the sound system did much to instill a sense of ownership. But this is the challenge. Yes, maybe this means moving away from some ‘cultures and traditions’ for the sake of the future, and if so the only way to achieve that is to build confidence in other cultures, traditions and identities. Perhaps the first step is recognizing vulnerability, and trying to address it by truly building a sense of shared identity, thus both preserving ‘cultures and traditions’ but doing so in a way that doesn’t hold the country’s future back for the sake of the past.

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