My kids always ask me what the flags are about. They find the black ones scary. But this year they were very impressed by the bunting and fresh Union Jacks in our area.
‘It’s making me feel very British’, said my five year old.
‘Me too, it makes me proud to be British’, added the seven year old.
‘That’s interesting,’ I said, thinking about their Irish passports in the drawer. And the fact that they tried to turn bath water into holy water last night.
‘Do you feel British?’, they asked.
How to make friends and influence people, Northern Ireland style.
‘A little bit’, I replied, ‘I mostly feel Irish. But it’s great that you feel British. And the good thing about living in Northern Ireland is that we get to be two things, Irish and British, whatever you want.’
A few days later, they asked to go to the 12th July parades.
I’d only been to the 12th, outside of work, once before when I was little. I remember my mum ate the face of my granda for taking us, as she was attempting to bypass the Troubles somehow, keep us out of harms way. It was the early 80s. I’d have probably done the same.
But, as a kid? Great craic. I was disappointed that future expeditions had been vetoed. Then slowly, over the years, I forgot it was quite fun. And this gave way to the idea that the 12th was pretty sinister, to be avoided. A sense which I carried around until I worked with loyalists, and saw how much of this was based on stereotypes and fear. And more than a little snobbery. Social class is as much as a division in this place as religion.
So this year, I decided, we’d go. I wanted my kids to absorb something of the ordinary 12th. To see loyalist culture as part of the warp and weft of life here. As texture and colour. Not as something to be avoided. I was pleased to learn via Facebook that we might bump into some friends from their Catholic school, who are in mixed marriages and had family in the bands. The Woodvale Festival, Greater Shankill Alternatives and Greater Shankill ACT were putting on great events. I was feeling the small ‘c’ in community.
And then it was 10th of July. And the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire, whose smoke I dutifully inhale every year, was too big and too close to the houses. So it was burned before it could be lowered. And the police vans came. Vans upon vans upon vans. And on the 11th July, the bomb scares started. And the Cluan Place bonfire was too close to the houses and had to be dismantled. By private contractors from outside Northern Ireland wearing balaclavas. And not because they admired the locals’ style.
Then the 11th night. A hijacked bus burning. The airport on shutdown. More bomb scares. Chaos all over Belfast, Newtownards and Bangor. Not to mention Derry, this time at the hands of dissident republicans.
I’ve spent too many summers feeling trapped by the 12th. The one where they stole a JCB, and bulldozed the local shop for its ATM. Which stayed closed for 6 months. The ones where you sleep on your mate’s sofa because you can’t get home. Or crap yourself rolling down the car window for random dudes to decide if you can get past or not, while cars around you burn.
And that’s just the tales of a cosseted middle-class Prod. It’s not like it’s my face on the election posters being burned. Or I’m a Catholic looking up at a banner saying ‘Kill all Taigs’. Or a nationalist hemmed into my house, listening to the heavy, steady drum beating outside my door.
I’ll never be at peace with the sectarian aspects of 12th July. Or the violence it often brings. There is no excuse in 2018 for illegal or dangerous bonfires. For people’s faces and effigies to be burned on them, like some messed up voodoo. No place for threats and intimidation. For criminal activity and inciting hate. For hijacking an Ulsterbus ffs – a scarce enough resource in a semi-rural area. One of the lowlights of the year was a tweet (now deleted) of people at the Sandy Row bonfire singing ‘We hate Catholics’, bizarrely to the tune of Tiffany’s ‘I think we’re alone now’.
But when you’ve seen so many loyalists, including former paramilitaries, busting themselves to stop all these things, and provide viable alternatives for the kids in their areas, the picture starts to get complicated.
I have a knee-jerk reaction to the Orange Order, as a religiously exclusive organisation, but appreciate the structure and mentoring that the bands can give kids and young adults.
I also know the difference between ordinary loyalists and active paramilitaries.
The news said that half a million people were expected at the 12th. How many people orchestrated the 11th night’s violence and intimidation? 100s? How many more thought it was a good idea? 1000s, 10,000s? I don’t know. But it’s not half a million.
So that’s why, despite the horror of the 11th night, and a strong reflex to stay away, I took my five year old to see the parades on 12th.
He liked them.
And I was glad we went. Because it was kids and old people and friends meeting up. Twirling band members and embroidered banners. People letting off steam. Long before peak drunk. And it reminded me that this is how most people, including loyalists, want to experience the 12th.
Indeed it’s mainly loyalist areas that get wrecked by the shit stirrers. Whose asthmatic kids breathe in smoke from burning tyres. Loyalist teenagers who will get criminal records as a result of it all. One taxi driver told us he left a guy home to an estate on the 11th night after a major brain operation, people jumping on his bonnet and shaking the car.
Like or loathe the politics, loyalists are a largely structurally abandoned bunch. Brunt bearers of our broken legacy of mental health. Test cases for austerity. Thrown SIF money as a panacea, so no-one important has to feel bad about watching loyalist areas slowly drown. Wash our hands, let the lads sort it out.
This is no excuse for violence. But it is context.
And here I have these tiny people, unaware of the pain of politics in Northern Ireland. In the relative safety of the daytime, they’re loving the flags and the flamboyance. They’re identifying this as a love of Britishness. And I’m up for exploring this with them, even if it’s not my cup of tea. I want us to know our neighbours, of all traditions.
But my kids will soon discover the news, and they’ll see the contradictions for themselves. They’ll see the dark side of the 12th. We drove past five burning cars on 11th. That’s why my seven year old refused to come to the parade. They’ll soon be able to identify that sound overhead as a police helicopter.
They’re blank slates now. But soon they will fill the category ‘Britishness’ up with meaning. The flags won’t just seem festive; they will demand a response.
So I look to the Orange Order, the DUP and UUP, and even the paramilitaries. And I think, what are you going to do about this? Does the leadership we saw this year from John Kyle, Gavin Robinson and Doug Beattie show the way? The silence from most others was deafening. Would it be rude to suggest that having a chaos button is handy? Or that silence works well for not losing votes?
Are your organisations going to lead your people out of chaos and sectarianism? Or turn a blind eye? Or throw twitter petrol on real life fires? What’s the long-term plan?
Because this 11th night bullshit does not represent, or serve, the loyalists I know. It will win no friends and influence no-one. It is simply an act of self-harm, inflicted on an already precarious union.