Bonfire Of Insanities

From last weekend's Radio Free Eireann broadcast Sandy Boyer (SB) interviews via telephone from Belfast former blanketman Richard O'Rawe (ROR) about what's going on with the bonfires in Belfast today in the run-up to Eleventh Night. Thanks to TPQ transcriber.
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
11 July 2015

(begin time stamp ~ 8:30)

SB: And we're going over to Belfast to speak to Richard O'Rawe. Richard's the author of Blanketmen. He was the Public Relations Officer (PRO) for the hunger strikers in 1981. Richard, thanks very much for being with us.

ROR:  You're more than welcome, Sandy. 

SB:  So Richard, there's a quaint custom in Belfast, where you grew up, called the bonfires on July Twelfth, The Glorious Twelfth: of course the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne where King Billy triumphed, with the help of course of The Vatican, over ... Now bonfires sound like a nice, quaint, peaceful custom. What's it actually like?

ROR:  Well, it's far from peaceful – at the minute it's peaceful but it's not a peaceable event. I mean, what it is Sandy, this is Loyalism exerting itself and showing how irrespectful they can be to other cultures. I mean some of these guys that are involved with these bonfires they're to the right of the KKK and that's the situation we're in. And on these bonfires traditionally they used to burn an effigy of the Pope but nowadays, nowadays, everyone, everyone's on the fire - they have a newspaper editor on top of one fire and now their wrath extends – they have also got, it extends to Sinn Féin guys. They have an effigy of Bobby Sands, Gerry Kelly, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and coffins which they intend to burn tonight. You know it’s just ~ bonfires are, in many ways, similar to the big drums – it's Loyalism exerting it's sectarianism. And that's basically what it is ~They all get around a bonfire and get drunk ~ that's basically what it boils down to ~ and burn anyone they don't like it.

SB:  And this year they've added a new wrinkle: they've displayed a Nazi flag which is kind of weird because...

ROR:  ...It is, it is, it is Sandy, we have to consider that Britain stood alone against the Nazis until America entered the war in December of 1941 and fought the Nazis. And yet in Carrickfergus, which is a town just outside Belfast, we have some Loyalists putting up the swastika which is bizarre because today I was driving over to South Belfast and there was a flag up celebrating the Battle of Britain, when the British, the British, the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe, so I mean it's quite bizarre. They also have flags up of the Paratrooper, the Paratroop Regiment and this is just being provocative because you have to bear in mind that the Paratroopers slaughtered the people in Ballymurphy and slaughtered the people in Bloody Sunday, etc. And that's just the nature of this. These guys...they're not – I mean we have a saying over here: They're not the full shilling, they are imnsane.

SB:  Well, part of the founding myth of Loyalism is the Battle of the Somme where the Ulster Volunteer Force regiment, in the British Army in the First World War, fought and had huge casualties – almost got wiped out - and that's part of their founding myth – but for some reason that doesn't extend to the Second World War. 

ROR:  I mean, it is, Loyalism is very uncultured – I mean they demand that their culture is respected and yet they give absolutely no respect to anyone else's. And as you quite rightly – well it does extend to the Second World War - that's not totally accurate. They are, they have the 36th Ulster Division Regiment. The Ulster Regiment was virtually wiped out - no, not virtually wiped out – it had huge casualties on the first of July, 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, yeah, although there was also a lot of Irish regiment casualties as well but they do respect – I have to be honest – they do respect those who died in the Second World War fighting Nazism. 

SB:  But they still display a Nazi flag with a swastika.

ROR:  That doesn't surprise me – I mean nothing these guys do surprises me. There was a photo today of a bunch of these thugs – that's the only way I could describe them – with balaclavas and all on in a part of Belfast - and they're talking about killing all taigs. And a “taig” is actually a pseudonym for Catholics and stuff like that there – it's just a time for blatant and utter sectarianism.

SB:  Actually, they've a mural on Broadway saying:

ROR: Yeah that’s it. 

SB: Crucify taigs. It's not enough to kill them – you've got to crucify taigs! 

ROR:  Well, you see that doesn't surprise me either because they probably would. If some unfortunate Catholic – if those guys were to get their hands on some unfortunate Catholic tonight I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was nailed to a cross and put on top of one of these fires. I mean, that's the attitude that these people...the hatred that they have for Catholics, for blacks, for Poles, for anyone who isn't of the white supremacist sort of mentality - it's palpable. You know, it is absolutely palpable! And it's abject hatred and it shows itself in all of the actions that they do - it's just absolute sectarianism and, as I said, white supremacist.

SB:  Well actually speaking of that, this year they've added the Confederate flag to their repertoire. Ironically, as the Confederate flag is being taken down in South Carolina it's being raised by the Loyalists in Belfast.

ROR:  Well, (laughs) it's been there for quite a while – it's been there for the last few years now. Again, it comes back to this white supremacist attitude.  While this is a one-off event every year it’s on, there's an ongoing campaign in Belfast, and particularly in Loyalist areas – I'm not too aware of it – I mean I could be wrong of in any Nationalist areas - but certainly in the Loyalist areas there is an ongoing campaign against people of different ethnic backgrounds - be they Muslims, be they black people, be they Poles. and you find that during the year their houses are being attacked and they're being intimidated out of their properties. and this is part of this sort of culture. Now, it would be unfair for me to say that all of the Unionist population are of that mentality - far from it, far from it! But there is a hard-core of bigots who are intent on wiping out anyone who doesn't adhere to their view of the world - and it's a pretty bizarre and abstract and rotten view of the world.

SB:  Yeah I mean, there does seem to be a difference with Nationalist areas – I don't say that Nationalist are completely free of prejudice – far from it ...

ROR: No. 

SB: but you don't get this burning people out, throwing stones through their windows, beating people up on the street - that just doesn't happen. I mean, a friend of mine is a black guy and he grew up in Ballymurphy – he references himself as “ a Murph Man” - Ballymurphy of course is one of the most Republican areas in Belfast - he says he never had any problems growing up as a black man in Nationalist Belfast.

ROR:  Well again, I don't want to sound as if I'm prejudicial here – I'm not. I'm just telling you the facts. People, black people live on the Falls Road - so do Muslims - and there's never a word said to them. If there is you wouldn’t hear, I haven't heard about it. And again and you made the call - you qualified it yourself - if it is happening – it could be happening - I just don't know about it. But I do know that in the Loyalist areas they are absolutely being attacked on a fairly regular basis. And again, I have to come back to the point, Sandy, that it's a small, it’s  a small number of people and it seems to be organised to some extent and there is a suspicion that the paramilitaries are behind this campaign of intimidating those in the ethnic minorities.

SB:  I do think the one difference in the Nationalist/Catholic community, if you're prejudiced - and probably some people are – you wouldn't want to brag about it. I mean, all the political parties would come down on you like a tonne of bricks,

ROR: Absolutely

SB: ... the Church would come down on you, all the community leaders – you wouldn't want to talk about that except maybe to your mates in the pub.

ROR:  Well even at that – I mean I grew up in a Republican culture and I have to say: I have never in my life heard people castigating blacks or castigating Poles - never mind attacking them! I've no experience of that at all. and that's just the reality of the situation – it wouldn't be an issue. It wouldn't be something that you'd speak about if you were out for a drink with the guys – it just wouldn't be an issue. And if there was blacks living – or there was Poles living – or there was Muslims for that matter living in your vicinity you wouldn't give it any thought. They're living there and they're annoying no one and no one's annoying them. And that's the way it should be. It should be a sort of society we are all aiming for. Nobody wants a society which is intolerant which has no time for ethnic minorities. Minorities enrich our society especially here in The North because a lot of the medical a lot of the doctors are from minority cultures and so without them our society would be so much poorer.

SB:  Well but, there was an article in The Belfast Telegraph (I saw it yesterday I don't know when it originally came out) about a bonfire in East Belfast, which is the heartland of Protestant Belfast, that the neighbours are very alarmed – their houses are going to burn down - or they're very afraid they are - and no one dares say a word about it because the people who are putting that bonfire together are saying: That's our culture and you can't interfere with our culture.

ROR:   This is the banality of it! tHis is, I saw this on the news last night and there was a wee guy who came on the news and he said what you said, this is our culture, and I couldn't help feeling sorry for him because: What a culture! They have this huge bonfire at the side of this street and the whole street is boarded up. It cost the Housing Authority here ten thousand pounds to board up this whole street to protect the windows, etc and the front doors. And these people  - And there was an elderly man, he's in his eighties and he was on and he was saying: This is really, really bad and I'm very dissatisfied with this situation. I have to move out of my house because of this fire at the end of the street. And this wee guy came on and he says: Well, this is our culture and we don't really... Basically he said: it's too bad about the residents - we're going ahead and we're going to light the fire. And what they actually did, Sandy, was they made the fire bigger - they made the pyre bigger – it was headlines in The Irish News this morning – that rather than move the thing away from the houses they made it bigger! I mean its almost, it's almost self-harming (for want of a better word) and there doesn't seem to be any sort of direction or thought or consideration for other people or other cultures or nothing or no one else. It's just total – a myopic vision of the world and everyone else can go and jump in the river as far as they're concerned.

SB:  And these bonfires by the way aren't just wood – I mean there's spare tyres, there's rubber and everything...

ROR:  Hundreds of tyres. Hundred of tyres. It's not just a few tyres – they have hundreds of them! The wood is really only the ignition – that's really only the thing that gets the fire lit – get's it going up. Then they throw the tyres on in their hundreds.  And there's always a competition as to who's got the biggest fire. And it's not just that one in South Belfast, sorry, in East Belfast - there are fires all over Belfast and they're huge. But I mean it comes back to the point: They're there because they want people who they perceive to be their enemies to know – it's like beating the big Lambeg drum – we're here and look at our big fire and we're in control and it's about possessing, it’s about possession – it actually reminds me of a dog urinating or a big cat urinating on a tree to mark it's territory – it's that sort of philosophy.

SB:  Well Ricky, before I let you go, this attitudes  projects itself on an international level. In Protestant/Loyalist areas they fly the Israeli flag. In Nationalist areas they fly the Palestinian flag.

ROR: Yeah.

SB: And for years there was identification with apartheid South Africa. And Ian Paisley went to South Africa and said how wonderful it is and said this security fence they have is great! They shoot everybody on sight as they come across the border – we should do be doing that here. But that identification seems to run very deep.

ROR:  It does. It does. As I said these guys are basically white supremacists, Sandy, and they would certainly would have an affinity with apartheid. I mean if they had their way they would put barbed wire all around the Falls Road and let no one in and out - again I have to keep coming back to this point because it's so important: there are very liberal elements in Unionism and progressive people - but they are silenced by this - I can't call it a minority – it's a fairly substantial bloc of people – but they are silenced by their extremism.

SB:  Well Richard, thank you very much and it's a pleasure talking to you again. 

ROR:  Sandy, it's a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for having me.
(ends time stamp ~ 24:16)

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

4 comments to ''Bonfire Of Insanities"

  1. The bonfire is starting to come back in style in Republican areas. They have always been there but after a relative lull and sparsity in part due to the West Belfast Festival taking off as an alternative they are more prevalent than they've been in years.

    Internment should be actively remembered and not forgotten. Perhaps the resurgence in recent years is due in part to the sparsity of community events as an alternative.

    The West Belfast Festival is too expensive for many and the guest lists are too long. No wonder people are disenchanted.

    We should remember Internment but maybe we should lead the way and use wooden beacons which give out more light? Why ape the unionists and their atavistic tradition? Tyre burning is carcinogenic. It destroys the environment by releasing carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

    Thankfully, Nationalists for the main stay away from tyres but if you get a community grant for using a beacon why not go a step further? Have something for the younger ones and a party for the older ones.

    We should lead the way. It would make us look daft if the Loyalists started using beacons and left us burning tyres. The opportunity is there.

    I noticed KILL ALL HUNS painted or KAH more frequently painted after the IRA ceasefire than before. There have also been sporadic attacks on minorities in Nationalist areas. Thankfully they have always been nipped in the bud and there is no concerted campaign like with UVF racism. Why be like them?

    I noticed some Anti-Protestant graffiti was being painted over only last week in West Belfast. That is the way to go.

    We should be more progressive, not just because of ideology or because we suffered discrimination and worse for things we couldn't control like our religion but because it is the right thing to do.

    There has always been Anti-Protestant sectarianism but thankfully it hasn't been the norm.

  2. "they do respect those who died in the Second World War fighting Nazism".
    I beg to disagree with Richard on this point -
    Catholic ex-servicemen have never been respected in Northern ireland from WWI onwards.
    Maybe Loyalists respect only non-catholics - or maybe loyalists "know" only non-catholics fought against nazism

  3. Doesn't look like we're that different after all. Tim Brannigan's home was attacked on the 8th August.

    Bricks, stones and racist abuse.

  4. A disgrace Simon: first I heard of that attack. Shower of bastards.


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