Is it time for Ulster loyalism to stop setting its own future on fire?

If you want to assure your neighbors that you're serious about a shared future, is burning their national flag, torching their religious symbols and statues, igniting effigies of their political representatives and printing giant billboards that say “kill them all” on a 200-foot bonfire the best way to do it?

Each year the loyalist community in the North pursues the same fiery catharsis and I suppose that we can understand why. Rejecting everything that is not them means that they strengthen what binds them together.

But it comes at such an enormous cost to their future and everyone else's. If you want to be a stone in the living stream of history you will certainly become powerful (because everyone else will be forced to move around you) but just like a stone in the living stream of life, the same fast-moving river will grind you to powder over time.

Fifty and sixty years ago loyalist bonfires were not the 200 and 300 foot giant towering infernos that we see nowadays. They were far more modest in size, and more community based, and less controlled and monitored by paramilitaries.

But these days all the bonfires that are lit in contentious areas are considered a handy way for paramilitaries to extend their legitimacy and control community activities. The local authorities tasked with bonfire management know this and so they are willing to turn a blind eye when they should be showing leadership themselves.

So unofficial organizations and unelected officials dictate to official ones and elected representatives, turning the ordinary rules upside down. When this happens there can be no effective push back over health and safety fears, or environmental concerns, and no redress for provocative displays such as burning flags, effigies and election posters.

For the duration of Marching Season the ordinary rules no longer apply, they are thrown out the window in fact. Because although existing laws could easily regulate these unwelcome bonfires, the authorities are deeply reluctant to enforce them due to fears over staff safety or of sparking “widespread public disorder.”

In fact, local authorities are now so thoroughly intimidated that few of them are even prepared to speak “on the record” for fear they or their organizations would face reprisals.

Loyalist bonfire in Belfast

Loyalist bonfire in Belfast

There are so many opportunities for things to take a sinister turn. Each year there are approximately 330 Eleventh of July bonfires, even though many or most of them are in breach of existing laws including fire regulations, waste disposal, illegal occupation of property, and insurance liability for injuries or damage to property.

And it does something profound, all this open defiance. It sends a message that the ordinary rules do not apply to one community in the North. It says that for them the laws are whatever they say they are. And the police, the government and the local authorities capitulate to this anarchy over and over.

In fact, Ulster Television (UTV) station often broadcasts cheerful little weather forecasts the night before, as if all of this was a jolly public holiday, instead of a threatening supremacist warning.

 Grabbed a chat with Rev Mervyn Gibson from @OrangeOrder ahead of Eleventh Night bonfires and Twelfth parades.

Says he wants to see tyres out of bonfires and a ‘family festival’ feel to it all. pic.twitter.com/AhD6g3B5Xa

— Damien Edgar (@damien_edgar7) July 8, 2019

Reverend Mervyn Gibson from the Orange Order spoke to the press this week ahead of Eleventh Night bonfires and Twelfth parades saying that he just wants to see toxic tires taking out of bonfires, thereby promoting a “family festival” feel to the proceedings.

I don't know what kind of family the Reverend is raising or what kind of Christianity he is practicing, but bringing your children to an event where your neighbors are not welcome and their symbols are set alight seems like something that should make him examine his personal morality.

Burning Irish flags and an effigy of the pope on a loyalist bonfire.

Burning Irish flags and an effigy of the pope on a loyalist bonfire.

These bonfires often feature giant banners that read KAT, meaning Kill All Taigs (meaning “Kill All Catholics”). Other's feature banners that read ATAT (Any Taig, Any Time – or All Taigs Are Targets) meaning the same. These aren't “family” friendly messages, they're death threats. So come the hell on, Reverend Gibson.

Trying to pass this of as “culture,” as though it were an arts festival, has been attempted. The Eleventh Night bonfires and the Twelfth Parades have together been rebranded “Orange Fest” as if they were a celebration instead of a warning.

Perhaps worst of all, the neutered local housing authorities are now writing to their tenants to inform them of the serious danger to life and property that these giant bonfires represent.

In a letter from the South Ulster Housing Association to local tenants this month the authority offered to put them all up in youth hostels for the duration of the “Orange Fest.” They're asking the tenants to move, not the bonfires.

Revellers at an eleventh night bonfire at Sandy Row, Belfast.Flickr.com