Bonfires: A Story of Regulation, Enforcement & Leadership

That ‘The Twelfth’ passed off without any major issues yesterday is a direct consequence of the triumph of those maintaining that regulation and enforcement,  of universally applied principles, held the key to resolving disputes in a bitterly divided society.

The last major parade dispute, at Belfast’s Crumlin Road interface, was resolved after loyalists were effectively given an ‘out’ after having boxed themselves into a corner following the Twaddell camp protest.

The fact that mediation, arbitration and enforcement, courtesy of the Parades Commission, PSNI and others, played such a pivotal role in helping provide a framework for the resolution of many disputes points towards the necessity of regulation and enforcement as the critical elements missing in the vexed bonfire saga annually revisited across the north.

The sight of apartment block windows shattering, of boarded up homes being hosed down, of streets cordoned off due to bonfires being positioned in the middle of them, is something that should not be acceptable in this society, and that is before we discuss & deal with the nakedly sectarian and racist dimension of the 11th Night bonfires in so many areas.

There is an obvious path to resolution, and it involves strict regulation of bonfires.

Where a bonfire is sited, who is responsible for maintaining the site, what/when items are to be gathered & burned.

Organising a licensing programme for bonfires will not be difficult, and could resolve problems revisited annually in a very short time.

The problem, of course, is that the will to address the issue is absent, and the reasons for that go to the core of our current political difficulties.

Political Unionism remains ill at ease with a peace premised upon a shared and equal society.

The DUP rejected the Good Friday Agreement, and over the past few months have made clear they don’t even accept the St Andrew’s Agreement.

They oppose the very existence of a Parades Commission and reject the idea of regulating bonfires. They won’t even oppose the erection of flags in shared housing communities. The new South Belfast MP, Emma Little Pengelly, has even suggested that what the bonfire builders decide to burn atop their pyres should be viewed as merely a form of dissent.

It’s about control.

It’s about a desire to cling on to a sense of superiority.

It can be heard in the Deputy Grand Master’s charge that nationalists are ‘militant cultural imperialists’ and in the inevitably doomed campaign to silence Past narratives in conflict with the world as viewed through a Unionist prism.

We are, slowly, moving in the right direction. Stormont will eventually return. Orangeism’s 48 Hours in mid-July will inevitably be strictly regulated to the benefit of all.

But the pace of progress in this society will continue to be contingent upon the willingness of Unionist leaders ‘to lead’. The fact that unionist politicians boycotted the media to avoid having to justify their stance over the Belfast City Council bonfire injunction move to loyalist grassroots supporters speaks volumes about the distance they have yet to travel in that regard.