There are many reasons why people oppose the practice of building and burning bonfires.
That they are an eyesore is beyond dispute. For a period of weeks- if not months -before the night they are set alight, the area surrounding the bonfire site is turned into a rubbish dump, attracting crowds often into the small hours of the morning.
Of course, many of those involved in constructing the bonfire are simply kids attracted by the excitement of the event, and many will retain and perhaps cherish memories of being involved in the process long into their adult years.
But some of those involved in constructing the bonfires will engage in anti-social behaviour which can terrify and cause misery to local people residing in the area who are simply interested in going about their daily lives. On that note, the transformation of green areas often in use by members of the community into a mass dumping ground is a depressing sight.
The 11th Night bonfire tradition continues to be defended by all elements within political unionism, leaving unionist politicians exposed and embarrassed when bonfires are constructed in a manner that endangers lives and property, or when the fire is constructed in a manner to promote hatred of the Other through the ritual burning of effigies, posters, flags and sporting shirts.
In republican communities, the destructive nature of the bonfire culture precipitated the development of Feile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival. The success of that community festival has led to numerous off-shoot festivals being established, including the Ardoyne Fleadh and Greater New Lodge Community Festival.
In recent years, there have been efforts by some within working class republican communities in Belfast and Derry to revive the bonfire tradition.
The primary motivation of those involved would appear to be to imitate what they see happening on the 11th July each year, when bonfires are set alight in loyalist communities. In August, the flaming pyres differ only in that the flags burnt are British. The hate is the same.
For many years, mainstream political leaders within nationalism have been very vocal in their opposition to those seeking to re-establish this tradition, and this has led to angry confrontations between community workers and elected representatives and those engaging in these antics.
Last August, a prominent republican ex-prisoner, Tim Brannigan, gave a public account of the racist abuse directed at him by those attending the August 9th bonfire in the Beechmount area of west Belfast. His house also came under sustained attack for a number of hours, with windows being broken.
Tolerance of the bonfire tradition is premised upon fear, and the violence visited upon Tim Brannigan illustrates why many would prefer to shuffle past the bonfire builders as opposed to voicing their opposition.
In such an environment, the role of political leaders and others in authority is of paramount importance. We should not be under any illusion: the bonfire is a culture almost exclusively preserved in working class communities for the simple reason that middle class communities would not tolerate such an imposition upon their locality- and residents in more affluent districts would expect the active support of the PSNI and other statutory agencies to prevent their communities from being treated in such a manner.
The New Lodge area of north Belfast is one of the most socio-economically deprived in the north of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure uses objectively-verifiable data to produce a picture of spatial deprivation across Northern Ireland. Of the 890 Super Output Areas (SOA) which take in every community in the state, the three SOAs representing the New Lodge electoral ward all rank in the top 16 most deprived (the only other electoral ward which features all three SOAs in the top 16 is Falls.)
The last person to be killed by the RUC using plastic bullets was 15 year old Seamus Duffy, who was killed in the New Lodge area of north Belfast on 9th August in 1989.
For many years now, local Sinn Fein elected representatives have played a game of cat and mouse with bonfire builders in the New Lodge district, attempting to prevent a bonfire from being built and burned in the area.
This year alone, Councillor JJ Magee has personally removed over 300 pallets. As a result, he has faced threats of physical violence and his car windscreen has been smashed. There is strong support from local residents for his actions, and it is not hard to see why.
I asked him to tell me about his experiences in the area in recent days.
“Many residents feel intimidated by the large groups of young men who gather in the area. In the past few weeks, two teenagers were subjected to a vicious assault and hospitalized after being set upon by thugs, whilst fighting amongst the older teens viewed as the ringleaders of the bonfire group is not uncommon. This has been happening for years and too many of those involved use the bonfire as an excuse to engage in anti-social behaviour which causes misery in the area.”
The role of the PSNI has been called into question by some, as the front page lead story in this week’s North Belfast News illustrates, whilst the reluctance of other statutory agencies to more actively get involved in preventative measures like removing pallets and tyres prior to the bonfire being set alight illustrates the challenges involved.
But there is a clear lesson to be learned from the relative peace that has defined this summer’s marching season, and it is this: regulation works.
The establishment of the Parades Commission has provided the framework in which, over a period of years, the resolution of almost every major parades dispute has occurred. The turmoil besetting the Twaddell lodges in recent days betrays a sense of resignation to the fact that, to all intents and purposes, the final parade dispute capable of sparking violence on an annual basis has been resolved.
But whilst the Parades Commission has worked effectively to defuse tensions across society, the problems visited upon predominantly working class communities by bonfires continues to be an area in which the law of the jungle alone applies.
That is not to say that bonfires should be completely banned. One of the key lessons from the success of the Parades Commission is that those involved must be identifiable and accountable. Consequently, a licensing system should be developed which will have the effect of establishing parameters and setting conditions which must be met for a bonfire, Orange or Green, to be constructed.
On this note, the failure of local government councils to provide an adequate stick for the carrot of council funding must be noted, and the bonfire funding scandal which rocked the former Antrim Borough Council provides an example as to why that approach is not the answer.
It should not be beyond the PSNI to either directly intervene- or protect those contracted to do so- when pallets and tyres are gathered for burning on public space, never mind when stolen banners, posters and flags oft-emblazoned with hate messages are positioned to be burnt from the pyres. The PSNI and statutory agencies are entitled to expect the full support of elected representatives for acting in a manner that will ultimately improve the quality of life for ordinary citizens.
After all, that is what they are paid to do.