We Didn’t Start the Fire – The Ongoing Problems with Bonfires…

Inevitably as we enter July in Northern Ireland, there is much talk about the parading season. With that, I thought it would be a good time to discuss one of the most controversial elements that accompany the parading season, namely bonfires and, specifically, Eleventh-night bonfires. Bonfires are a difficult subject; even within the Unionist community, there is not widespread support for them, and many Unionists are dismayed by the negative trappings associated with some bonfires. Bonfires are legitimate expressions of culture provided they are managed correctly; however, the problematic elements accompanying a sizeable minority cannot be ignored by those of us in the Unionist community. These problematic bonfires undermine not only Eleventh-night festivities but the entire Twelfth season; if these problems can be properly addressed, it will help further normalize the parading season, and there is untapped potential to be realised; however, failure to address these problems will cause further issues and increasingly diminished support for the bonfire culture.

Background

There is general uncertainty as to the origins of bonfires, many people associated with them cite “tradition” when asked about their origins, and in many respects, this is true as in places across Northern Ireland, bonfires are traditions that have transcended generations. However, like many traditions, bonfires have a symbolic origin, and the reason they are built for the Twelfth is twofold, namely:

– When the Williamite soldiers landed in Carrickfergus in 1690, supporters lit bonfires to welcome William and his soldiers.

– To help the Williamite ships navigate through Belfast Lough at night, fires were lit on hilltops across Antrim and Down.

Now bonfires are seen as a means to celebrate the Twelfth period, with their origins underpinning a tradition that many are unaware of.

Personal Experiences of the Eleventh Night

In Fermanagh, there are generally few to no bonfires each year. It’s not a tradition that has extended this far west. I did stumble across a bonfire at a site in Enniskillen once. However, it was small, heavily policed, and looked like an excuse by some to engage in antisocial behaviour. The Eleventh night in Fermanagh is a generally relaxed time; there will usually be a buzz around the town that is hosting the Twelfth the next day, where last-minute preparations will be in full swing. For those of us taking part in the Twelfth, it’s a good opportunity to ensure that suits, band uniforms and equipment are ready, and bands use it as a day to brush up on tunes ahead of the Twelfth. I lived for a short period in a Loyalist area of Belfast where a bonfire was situated. The bonfire was built alarmingly close to an individual’s home; the site was treated like a dump with people from near and far offloading their rubbish, most of it unfit for a bonfire and the site was patrolled regularly by a handful of youths. What I encountered after the bonfire had been burnt was a scorched wasteland with large piles of rubbish strewn over it. The home adjacent to the bonfire had its hedge entirely burnt and the house was heavily scorched with goodness knows what unseen damage was done. The owner of the property could do very little; living within the community and speaking out could have resulted in further trouble so they were left to deal with any fallout quietly. In addition to this the council spent several days clearing the site at a considerable expense to the public purse. As someone involved in the Orange scene, it was a shocking realisation that the current bonfire culture in certain areas is abhorrent, unsustainable, and certainly didn’t represent any culture that most Unionists would identify with.

What are the main issues with Bonfires?

Location, location, location – this is a central problem with many bonfires; there are innumerable examples of them being built too close to buildings where they cause a risk to life and property. This has resulted in the unsettling occurrences of people’s homes being hosed down to prevent them from catching fire, or as often happens, properties close to bonfires have to be boarded up to protect them. Flags, emblems, and other imagery appearing on bonfires are grossly offensive to many. One of the most horrific sites I have seen through TV coverage was when someone threw a statue of the Virgin Mary onto a blazing bonfire; it was a shocking hate-filled act carried out by someone who probably considers themself a “Protestant”. There are innumerable incinerations of the Irish tricolour, GAA attire, and election posters belonging to parties including the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and Alliance. Other problems include anti-social behaviour around bonfire sites leading up to and including on the Eleventh night. This is often the result of excessive alcohol consumption. Some bonfires have paramilitary displays at them. There have been ample examples of blatant sectarianism; this was evident in 2020 when a “children’s bonfire” was daubed with “KAT” – Kill all Taigs; there is little point in dressing this up as a friendly abbreviation. Bonfires are also considered a strain on the emergency services, with the fire brigade responding to 24 incidents in 2020, a year when there were calls for no bonfires due to the pandemic. There is a growing issue with the toxins released from bonfires, particularly when tyres are burned. To add to an ever-growing list, there is the fact that communities where bonfires are built can feel under siege due to the dangerous nature of some bonfires, and also these areas can become a cesspit of rubbish and antisocial behaviour and general criminality for weeks leading up to the bonfire. This all culminates in a huge bill to the public purse, which is becoming less sustainable.

Whilst these problems associated with specific bonfires get much of the media coverage; it’s important to caveat that they remain in the minority in the overall bonfire culture. They in no way are representative of what the Twelfth is about; they don’t represent the vast, vast majority within Unionism, nor do these represent Unionist culture. However, these actions at specific bonfires frequently dominate the news over the Twelfth, they can put many off the event itself, and they cast a dark shadow over Unionism, Loyalism, and Orangeism.

Does the Orange Institution Control the Bonfires?

Despite the general perception, most bonfires are not organised by the Orange Intuition, and the organisation has little influence over them. However, the leadership illustrated in 2020 that they have some influence as the number of bonfires reduced following the Orange Intuition’s guidance. I felt it was a huge mistake for the Grand Secretary to get involved in the 2019 standoff concerning the Avoniel bonfire, which was essentially being built on council property with the protest being infiltrated by Loyalist paramilitaries; this muddied the waters between the organisation and controversial bonfires, even if the Grand Secretary attended in a private capacity. In 2020 I felt Grand Secretary Gibson provided much stronger leadership throughout the pandemic and held the line on both the subject of bonfires and the Orange Institutions’ changed and much-reduced role on the Twelfth. Whilst the Orange Institution isn’t linked to the bonfires, it could be more proactive on the topic of problematic bonfires by openly condemning illegal, dangerous, and sectarian bonfires and by also acting as an influencer for positive change within the relevant areas.

Should Unionist Politicians do more?

I am sympathetic to the difficult role Unionist politicians have concerning bonfires; privately many want to banish the controversial bonfires; however, in reality, they know that saying this openly could result in attacks on them with the prospect greatly enhanced if the politician lives within the area where the bonfire is located. The DUP has been vocal on problematic bonfires, Emma Little-Pengelly openly slated the burning of tyres on bonfires, the DUP group on Belfast City Council have been slated by some for voting to remove materials from dangerous bonfires. Gavin Robinson has been very vocal in condemning the 2019 Avoniel bonfire and the paramilitary links to it (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-48947349), and again in 2020, he was outspoken on the need to ensure that large bonfires were not built during the COVID-19 pandemic. Arlene Foster was scathing in her condemnation of the sectarianism linked to some bonfires in Belfast in 2020. Doug Beattie of the UUP is also an outspoken critic of dangerous bonfires, in one such incident in 2019 he rightly condemned the fact that residents had to be evacuated from a block of flats to allow a dangerous and illegal bonfire to go ahead. The issue for Unionist politicians is that they have limited control over these bonfires and their role is often retrospective. There is a need for Unionist politicians to work more with the organisers of bonfires and other associated bodies well in advance of July to curtail some of the bigger problems, this happens to some extent but in many situations, it is not happening.

Who Controls the Bonfires?

The people who build the bonfires usually comprise members of the local community where the bonfire is being built. Many of the bonfires are built by teenagers and young adults, however, they are often overseen by a committee, or in some cases, the tentacles of paramilitaries can be seen exerting their control. In addition to this, the stakeholders will include the residents who are part of the community where the bonfire is located. Whilst some local communities will be broadly supportive of bonfires, others will feel compelled to remain silent on the more difficult aspects. It’s important to spare a thought for the residents, their home faces fire damage, and they endure anti-social behaviour for a prolonged period, but in all likelihood, there will be an unwillingness to do anything about it for fear of repercussions.

There will also be many bonfires that have strong teams in place to make certain that the pyres are well built and safe, ensuring that there is no dumping of rubbish, and that post bonfire any debris is cleared away.

Are Problem Bonfires Being Addressed?

There are attempts across Northern Ireland to ensure bonfires are safe and more family orientated. There has been a huge effort to ensure less toxic materials are burned on bonfires, there is still work to be done here but much fewer tyres now appear on bonfires than at any point in recent history. Beacons have been introduced in certain areas instead of the traditional bonfires, these are much smaller and safer and emit significantly less co2 emissions. Councils in areas such as Belfast are offering bonfire committees grants with stipulations that they must agree to particular guidelines, this issue is that the identity of the organisers of some bonfires is so vague and loosely structured that if anything goes wrong it’s difficult to hold people or groups to account. There have been greater calls to ensure items such as flags and emblems are no longer displayed on bonfires, depressingly this is still being ignored by some with 2021 bonfires already being littered with flags and election posters. It’s evident that much more needs to be done concerning difficult bonfires, however, there are elements of Unionism and Loyalism that recognise problems that need to be addressed and can no longer be ignored.

Are there any Good Bonfires?

Most Eleventh night activities are good, well run family and cultural events. The huge issue is that a significant minority of troublesome bonfires overshadow all of the good events on the Eleventh and Twelfth. Across many parts, bonfires are a source of pride within their communities and there is an undeniable skill in those who build some very impressive pyres. Schomberg Mourne Ulster-Scots run a very successful Eleventh day and night, events include open-air concerts, marching bands, Highland dancers, historical reenactments, lambeg drumming, and a fireworks display.

Many of the rural bonfires, whilst less prominent and much more contained in size will feel like a universe away from the images that make the news. Alcohol is much less prominent and these events are much more relaxed in nature and are often accompanied by the local band from the area putting some last-minute practice in before the big day. In more urban areas the bonfire will be the central part of a wider event, usually entailing a street party and other such festivities. Last year during the pandemic, many opted for small fires and barbecues at their homes and enjoyed spending time with the family and neighbours. None of these bonfires are newsworthy as there is no trouble or controversy associated with them, however, they much better and more accurately reflect the Twelfth traditions and the people involved in these traditions.

Final Thoughts

Bonfires are a significant part of the Twelfth traditions and a small but for some, important aspect of Unionist culture. Done correctly they are a legitimate form of cultural expression and with some changes, there is a huge untapped potential with these bonfires that could make them into a wider tourist attraction as well as a more welcoming feature for the wider community to attend or at least not to fear. At present this is a distant aspiration with too many bonfires proving hugely questionable. As the running of bonfires is decentralised with loosely formed teams, it’s hugely difficult to implement a protocol (there’s that word again), however, having an overarching management committee that has some clear guidelines would be a welcome step. There is also a need to establish safe and static bonfire points which if strayed from will result in the immediate removal of said bonfires. This will be extra difficult if sites are controlled by paramilitary elements and this will require communities, organisers, politicians, and the police to work together on solutions. It is also important to remove the blame that some communities receive for troublesome bonfires; many will not want these bonfires in their areas but will find it difficult to speak up for fear of repercussions. Loyalists and Unionists involved with bonfires will do well to work on issues surrounding bonfires whilst they remain in a position of control. Whilst work has been done to improve the culture of bonfires, there are still too many dangerous bonfires and bonfires that appear to be manifestations of hate fests rather than legitimate cultural expressions. Dangerous bonfires, bonfires that burn flags, political posters and emblems, bonfires that are controlled by paramilitaries or that are infiltrated with anti-social behaviour are not expressions of Unionist and Orange culture and in fact, they undermine it. Unionists and Loyalists still have significant influence in the operations of bonfires, it would be wise to use this influence from a position of power to address the problems, agree and enforce regulations, otherwise, the public’s patience will run out and it will be taken out of Unionism’s hands leaving Unionists with another battle to fight that they won’t win.

Photo by Alexas_Fotos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA