If progress is to be made on dangerous bonfires, the political footballs need to be kept firmly in the bag

The bonfire is not, as you would think from all the commentary, an exclusive feature of July Orangeism. In my own Tyrone village for instance – which is predominantly Catholic in population, but broadly quite apolitical in attitude – various housing estates would traditionally compete at Halloween time to see who could build the biggest bonfire.

Yes, there were even incarnations of those bonfires that were situated rather recklessly.

Fundamentally, the concept of the bonfire is something which working classes gravitate toward because it gives a refreshing sense of purpose. A sense of unity in effort. A sense of victory over other collectives. A sense of satisfaction at a finished product.

Call it romantic nonsense if you want, but ask any person partaking in a “collection” and that is what they will describe – possibly in less flowery terms.

It is futile to attack unionist/loyalist communities about out of control bonfires from a political standpoint.

I have seen many comments to the effect that July bonfires are merely the product of an ideology that is typically low in IQ – but they are not, they are an expression of a working class with little outlet for its energy.

Nationalists and liberals piling on the unionist community and its politicians about the bonfire on Chobham Street only makes the possibility of a resolution less likely. There is a political tone to criticisms, and it solidifies the siege mentality in working class unionist Belfast that “they are chipping away at our culture”.

This debate has to be one of logic. Collectively there needs to be a genuine, rational discussion without allowing political opportunism to creep in and create solution-inhibiting hostilities.

Building an enormous bonfire on the periphery of houses is unquestionably ridiculous, but some are more concerned with using that reality to batter the unionist/loyalist community than protect the affected houses and environment. And the unionist/loyalist community sense this. So rather than partake in dialogue, there is the knee-jerk tendency to disregard discourse about the issue altogether; and proceed as things were – which benefits nobody.

This conversation cannot be had in a crude nudge nudge, smirk smirk – “look at them eejits” type of a way. Internally unionist leaders need to get around the table with the community and point out that dealing with dangerous bonfires is not about capitulating to supposed republican cultural warfare – but ensuring that family homes (within their own community) are given greater consideration than the “might” of an inanimate display.

Likewise, nationalists need to hold off on framing such issues along the lines of “for god sake unionism, have the balls to get your extremists in order”; otherwise efforts made by unionist leaders toward a reasonable conclusion are perceived as selling out to nationalist desires. And thus many don’t even try.

On a related note, whether those concerned with the ecological health of Belfast can come to terms with it or not, these bonfires are a long-standing tradition and are not going to just go away at a whim.

So rather than simply lamenting the PSNI for not forcing these constructions to be taken down pallet by pallet – which again would create an political atmosphere that only makes the community more determined to reject a common sense approach – we need to encourage community organizers to revise the competitive nature of the July bonfire.

Perhaps also it would be worthwhile for unionist/loyalist Belfast to consciously find some aspect of Orange season proceedings where people (in particular the youth) can more productively channel their enthusiasm for the occasion.

The working class wherever you go in Belfast are a proud people. When they are assigned a task that could make them the envy of other like-minded areas, they aspire toward nothing less than their absolute best.

That in my opinion is why you have these humungous bonfires. Flags and effigies may be the Machiavellian touch of more sinister elements, but fundamentally I think the magnitude of the bonfires is more to do with an honest, albeit misdirected sense of zeal.

So when reporters highlight that a July bonfire is infringing on the home life of local residents, instead of pumping up the political football, we should encourage and allow honest ground work to take its course.

As the Woodvale Festival example highlights – where a process of self-analysis has led to the development of what many consider to be an ideal model for green/orange celebrations going forward – it is much more effective than loudly condemning from the sidelines.




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