We all felt sorry for the articulate young man whose apartment near Sandyrow was damaged by an 11th Night bonfire. He, sensibly, didn’t want to be recognised so the interview was done off camera. He wanted to live in safety, he wanted compensation for the damage but above all he didn’t want to annoy anyone or interfere with “cultural expression”. These seem reasonable middle-class values and who could argue with them? His neighbour, a thirty-something woman, equally articulate, praised the Sandyrow area as “a brilliant place to live; on 11 months of the year”. These upbeat young people see the future potential for Belfast and for the Sandyrow area which is probably why they bought and chose to live in these modern apartments. You could almost hear them saying that gentrification will be complete – and my asset improving in value – if only the natives would stop getting restless every July.
The MP for the area Emma Little-Pengelly was wonderfully reassuring suggesting something to the effect that insurance was merely a procedural matter and would, in some way, or by some means, pay for the damage. This reassurance was vital as the NIO had earlier in the day sharply rebuked any suggestion from residents they were responsible as they had been during the dark days of the Troubles. The middle-classes were in agreement the problem can be sorted out.
There was off course another bonfire related issue; the mysterious case of the missing pallets and the role of Belfast City Council. If there was a deal, there was a justifiable sense of betrayal among bonfire builders when this deal was not delivered. They were less articulate than the young apartment block residents but they got their message across. A Council car park was commandeered and nearby at an island of literary culture twelve Belfast Bicycles decommissioned; sorry perhaps that was just a coincidence.
So we got through another 11th Night in Belfast and can pretend for another 11 months at least that things are fine.
Jenny McCartney, originally from these shores, writing in the Spectator – a publication as far away culturally and geographically as you can get from Sandyrow – makes a number of insightful points about the bonfire culture. She believes that the Belfast Bonfire Culture has gone beyond a cultural expression to “…one of defiance and despair among working class Protestants who feel abandoned by the rest of the UK.”
Boys and young men who would once be proud builders of World-class Ocean liners are now relegated to building bonfires. We know the level of social deprivation across Belfast is obscene generally and it is particularly significant among young protestant men. This is toxic to health and wellbeing and that’s why this cohort in our society is likely to die 11 years before they should and are more likely live with a long-term condition such as; cancer, heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems.
They lack the right kind of leadership. With the exception of people like Dr John Kyle their politicians tend to treat them poorly and often with contempt; some arrogantly treat them as mere useful idiots. Both DUP and UU politicians have been generally silent on the matter of bonfires and flags. Indeed Jenny McCartney rightly criticises Emma Little-Pengelly for responding limply to concerns about flag flying in shared housing estates.