“Mammy, why do we not have a flag on our house?”

Mairia Cahill writes on her impressions of visiting a bonfire site on the lower Shankill yesterday, and how a child’s eye view, unencumbered by the narrative framing of cultural matters, helped her see another side to the celebrations of The Twelfth.

A week ago, I caused consternation amongst some of the hardline Loyalist community for raising the issue of flags flying from lampposts. I asked was there any “need” to fly large Union Jacks from in an effort to understand where this section of the community was coming from.

For this, I was told that I had “offended the entire community”, that my “mask had slipped”, and that I was a “republican scumbag” and one person hoped that I would get a particular message on a specific bonfire this year.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have many friends from all religious and political backgrounds. I do however, like to debate, so that people, including myself, can gain a better sense of understanding.

With the exception of Jamie Bryson, who gave up his time for an interview, few were willing to have “hard conversations”, or entertain a difference in view – As Twitter is unrepresentative of the real world, I wanted to speak with real Loyalists.

With this in mind, I accepted an invitation from the Lower Shankill to attend their family fun day.

I collected my 4 year old daughter from daycare and drove past Camp Twaddell (which, lets not beat about the bush, costs the public a fortune and is a bit of an eyesore at times), and turned down the Shankill Road.

Now, I’m not in the habit of having political discussions in front of my daughter, so, when I discovered she even knew the word “flag”, I was a bit surprised.

She was asking me where the “party was” and, looking up at the bunting on the Shankill her voice raised a few octaves as she squealed in delight “Mammy follow the flags, follow the flags!”, and then; “those flags are beautiful Mammy, they criss cross on the road, their arms must be tired putting them up.”

It took a four year old to point out to me that flags are about perception, both in intent in erecting, and in that feeling when looking at them – you’re either bothered, or you’re not.

I’ve seen it in other mixed estates over the years and an uneasiness always surrounds this time of year. I still don’t get the importance of flags – for either side, but I’m not necessarily offended by them either.

On some occasions I view it as territorial, mostly when associated with paramilitary trappings. Mostly, it doesn’t affect me personally.

Years ago, when I played in Ballymurphy, when Springhill Housing estate was built, kerbs were painted green white and orange, every lamppost had a flag, and big green white and orange letters spelled out “IRA” on every lamppost pole.

20150710_163409Lower Shankill ran an organised festival type day. The waft of the burger van brought that familiarity of outdoor family events, and little rows of shoes lined up on the grass outside the brightly coloured bouncy castles.

A larger inflatable duelling course kept the older kids occupied.

A couple of feet away from me a two year old child with ketchup all over his face ran over with a packet of space raiders in his hands, whooping and laughing to himself as he tried to scare the seagulls.

Adults walked around with black bin bags keeping the green field tidy, and families sat down on the grass together. Neighbours swopped news and gossip, and the men stood awkwardly around the edges, some with steward bibs on.

Years ago I worked many similar events during Feile an Phobail, and this one was well run and well supervised. The big bonfire loomed on the side of the field, kids periodically scaling up it.

The “boney” this year was erected in consultation with the Fire Service, who advised how far away it needed to be from houses so it wouldn’t cause damage, and to their credit, the community complied with the height restriction this year.

There were no effigies, and no sectarian banners. I counted three flags, one a Union flag, and the other two paramilitary flags. Not my cup of tea, but it’s the reality for that community.

The person who invited me was apologetic, I told him there was no need, I wasn’t offended, but I would like to see the day when they were the exception rather than the norm.

My daughter didn’t know what the bonfire was, and I didn’t know how to explain. She thought it was a mammoth climbing frame and was a bit put out when I refused to let her climb it.

She was mollified when I let her sit on the lower pallet and get her picture taken. There she was, sitting with drumsticks in her hand beating away at a Union Jack coloured toy drum. ‘One for the scrapbook’ I thought to myself.

I had intended to write a piece which pulled together Loyalist thinking, until that moment. I was going to write about how Jamie referred to a “defiance” within the community, and how there was a “fear” that their culture was being stripped from them bit by bit.

I was going to delve into the thinking behind the kids who don’t give a toss how the Chobham street bonfire is causing distress to the residents there, and a fortune to the taxpayer.

20150710_170326I could have written about the completely inadequate response and an unwillingness to enforce the law, or the toxic fumes from tyres causing damage to health and the environment.

I was also intending to write about how, when I tweeted the pic of myself at the bonfire on the Shankill, how it was met with outrage from two Sinn Fein members, most notably Mairead Farrell Youth Group member Kathy Crawford who decided that amongst other things my going to the bonfire was an attack on Sinn Fein.

I was going to write about how despite Sinn Fein urging people to have “uncomfortable conversations”, and “reach out” to other sections of the community, some of their members who haven’t a clue about the origins of republicanism, have no intentions of reaching out just yet.

I was intending to write about how the “fair plays for going over” from the Loyalist community on Twitter were welcome, and I was going to urge caution to other areas to not let themselves down once the fires are lit, the drink goes in and the wit goes out.

I’ve decided instead to focus on the positive. The children I met today were not triumphant, but children who were having a great time playing away, and who saw the bonfire as a bit of excitement. Those children live in one of the most underprivileged areas in Belfast.

Yes, some of that is down to what I term “community control” – but today, the community, with the help of funding, provided a day they are likely to remember fondly as they grow older.

My own daughter enjoyed herself. She continued beating her union jack drum until bedtime. And as she was going over to sleep, mulling the days events over in her head, she said “Mammy, why do we not have a flag on our house?”

That question, like the ones I tried to get to the bottom of within the Loyalist Community, will take longer to answer.

I hope those who celebrate the twelfth have a happy, peaceful, and ‘without a hitch’ day, and that those who don’t celebrate it enjoy their downtime. More than anything, I hope that those children today stay free from prejudice as they grow, and become confident leaders of tomorrow.

When you are confident, you do not need to be triumphant, and when you are made to feel comfortable, you do not need to feel inferior.

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