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Bonfires And Burning Cars

Anthony McIntyre writing in the Belfast Telegraph reflects on the bonfire culture in the North. 

Belfast Telegraph Title: Burning cars to be condemned, but is a result of young feeling alienated

Where I live in Drogheda, the North, perhaps because it is felt to be consumed by its own history, is treated in kind. The logic in LP Hartley’s timeless phrase, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” is not lost on people here. Paradoxically, one of the first things to be noticed in this part of the island is how little the North is noticed on one of its most celebrated dates. The 12th of July is just that, the 12th rather than the Twelfth. Few notice or care. Bonfires of whatever hue, and the vanities they offend, seem very distant.

Living my formative years in the Lower Ormeau Road, I grew up with a bonfire culture. From my earliest memories, one was built every year at the corner of Bagot Street and then burned at the intersection with Essex Street on the Eleventh night. It was around 1969 or 1970 that we gathered wood at the other end of Bagot street, the plan being to burn it at the McClure Street junction on the night of the 15th of August, a Catholic feast day. Hours in advance of our planned conflagration a bin lorry hauled our wood away in the presence of the RUC. That day I learned something about the divisive content of bonfires and the politics that fuel them.

With the introduction of Internment, the bonfire culture within nationalist communities, to the extent that it existed, shifted dates from the 15th of August to the 9th, and away from pious saints to political sinners. The fires became a celebration not of internment per se but of the insurrection within the nationalist community against Operation Demetrius. The bonfire on that date became a mark of anti-state protest.

In 1973 I was arrested, batoned by British troops, and later confined to St Patrick’s Boys Home for a week’s remand not long after I had the honour of setting alight the bonfire at the junction of Lavinia Street and the Lower Ormeau Road. The Union Jack ablaze at its apex seemed to infuriate the squaddies more than the fire itself. 

Since then the emphasis within the nationalist communities has shifted to more anodyne commemorations. It is linked to Sinn Fein’s drive for respectability. Respectable people don’t do illegality, the uncouth or jail time. That is for the Philistines, old boy.

There will be much genuine anger about the wanton destruction, where cars and credit unions are torched rather than firewood. Yet, as much as a magnet for disturbance as the bonfires are, they pale into insignificance compared to the February 1978 republican bonfire in la Mon House in which twelve innocent people lost their lives. Burning effigies is much less deleterious than burning people. It is not perfect but it is progress.

Jonathan Craig of the DUP has taken to criticising Sinn Fein for the violence. Which is hardly the case. Sinn Fein is an easy target because of its erstwhile anti-state ethos. Now it is as loyal to the Northern state as Craig is. In becoming the new authority Sinn Fein is reaping what it longed sewed within nationalist youth. Promoting a poacher’s contempt for the authority of the gamekeeper was okay up until the revolutionaries decided to pack their tents outside Stormont and become part of the establishment within. In the rush to curse those left outside and criminalise youth culture the nationalist establishment has been gushing with language that “it’s any excuse for these young people who want to cause trouble in the area or “mindless actions by thugs trying to destroy our own communities.” How the North moves on from the past by resorting to the decontextualized condemnatory discourse of the past is perhaps less explicable than the bonfire culture.

No mention by the nationalist establishment of the anti-internment nature of the fires or that many young people continue to feel alienated by what they regard as the current internment of people like Tony Taylor.

Scream “criminal” with as much Thatcheresque inflexion as they can muster, they cannot escape that what the academic Richard English astutely said of dissident republicans as much applies to those behind the anti-internment bonfires:
Yes, there is a criminal dimension to some of the activities involved ... But the main attraction to dissident republicanism remains political.

Anti-Internment sentiment, manifested in bonfires or other forms of protest, is always political .

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

15 comments to ''Bonfires And Burning Cars"

  1. AM, where is the evidence of those people speciically citing alienation as the reason for burning their communities property? If the car burning is the end result of a pattern of anti-social behaviour, at what stage should society seek to isolate such individuals? Who among us has enough 'stuff' they dont mind donating for destruction to see this rehabilitation experiment through to the end?

  2. DaithiD,

    people rarely cite alienation for their behaviour. But we know enough people have been left behind by the political dispensation and who both imbibe and exhibit anti-state/anti-authority sentiment. The wider bonfire culture can't be reduced to car burning. Nor should we apply the lazy criminal label to those who collect the wood and torch it etc. Not one of the criticisms levelled at the bonfire people is different from the terms used to describe ourselves back in the day. Something that might interest you from FB earlier this evening:

    "Just to let folks know the Craigavon Anti-internment bonfire will take place on the 14th August on top of the rathmore hill,there will also be the Irish folk group twice daily playing! We would appreciate if people could assist in collecting materials,the help would be appreciated, if you are dumping any wood please dump it on the top of the hill,we will be going round looking donations, to help us pay for the group!Remember folks internment is alive and kicking today! And we would urge any trouble makers to stay away!"

    Does that sound like an anti-social gang of thugs eager to destroy their own community?

    I think the time for bonfires is past much like I do for graffiti. The age we live in allows for a number of alternatives. But they can cost money and it is easier for the austerity hugging nationalist establishment to shout "criminal" rather than shout "fund alternatives."

  3. AM. I don't know about now but in recent years some bonfires were funded. For example instead of burning tyres and creating carcinogenic fumes for themselves and their neighbours if you burnt a beacon which burns longer and brighter you received funding.

    This funding would pay for a street party, a dj, bouncy castles etc.

    That sounds like a decent alternative to me.

    I understand the fun in gathering wood but tyres are making a reappearance on the bonfires. I don't get stealing people's recycle bins, full of cardboard, from their backyards to fuel it either. Or in my case breaking down the gate to get the cardboard. I leave my gate open. It's now in two pieces. I am not made of money. I leave my gate open always. Why break it down? It seems the bonfire culture fuels a destructive mentality.

    The hoods are turning against their own community which is why the West Belfast Festival was created so many years ago. Perhaps if the West Belfast Festival was better managed and aimed at the wider community rather than guest-lists as long as your arm on the one hand and lack of opportunity for the locals on the other we'd be further down the road of looking after ourselves.

    I agree with DaithiD. It might have taken some wanton vandalism to get me to agree with him, but if you read posts from years ago I mentioned the need for an alternative to the bonfires.

    There have been alternatives AM but the hoods aren't interested. I have never met a bonfire builder who is also a political activist. That doesn't mean there aren't any but I'd say they are few and in-between.

    I remember the bonfires of the 1970s/early 80s. The same desperation isn't as widespread but I get that it is still there. We're not all at risk from being slaughtered and the bonfires of the past were a way to fight back.

    Get a beacon, have a dance and wise up and leave your community in peace.

  4. Simon,

    you phrased that comment as if it was almost a crime to be caught agreeing with Daithi D LOL.

    Bonfires were always a nuisance for most of the community but a form of community barbecue for the young. There was a always a tension around their existence. I never knew anyone who wanted them near their home.

    I think your comments make the bonfire culture appear as a hood driven enterprise. I don't take that view, feeling instead that it is tradition driven. If you look at the statement I cited in my response to Daithi The Devil that hardly shows a hood driven sentiment.

    But tradition is not a means to continue doing things in the traditional way. I don't agree with the bonfires and think there needs to be a replacement very much along the lines you suggest.

    Soccer matches often gave rise to football hooliganism but the match per se was not considered the causal factor. Then Peter Marsh (I think it was) rather than criminalise and label the hooligans began sociologically analysing them and provided a very (so non-right wing) insightful explanation of how a wide rage of societal factors determined their behaviour and which could not be reduced to "they are all thugs".

    As for the Festival, I lived in Springhill and saw how the residents there did not seem enthusiastic about the festival concert there. The streets were covered in litter, the noise pollution was terrible, the gardens were used as urinals and at times worse. I recall residents having to stand across the stop of their streets to block them being accessed by revellers.

    I am not a fan of bonfires. We outgrow them. The destruction of people's property is deplorable. I just think the easy and lazy means to address them is to use the language of the past that was used against us by people who are sitting ensconced in the conservative establishment. Talk about every thing but don't mention internment.

    I am sorry your property was damaged. It is despicable. But I don't believe the urge to destroy is what fuels the anti-internment bonfires.

  5. My comment about agreeing with DaithiD was tongue-in-cheek. I meant no offence.

    It may be tradition driven but it was a tradition that was dying out and is making a resurgence. The resurgence is the problem. Is it linked to the Administrative Detention we have today? Possibly. Is it the answer to Administrative Detention? Definitely not. Does getting wasted beside a bonfire help your cause, if indeed it is your cause? Unlikely. A true political activist would try to raise awareness, seek to educate and rally the people instead of dividing the people.

    I am not saying all the people are thugs because I know they're not.

    You said "I don't believe the urge to destroy is what fuels the anti-internment bonfires." I don't believe that either. The cause and effect is the bonfires themselves fuel the urge to destroy. A subtle but important difference. If an alternative was found for the means of protest, a non-destructive, positive and rallying form of protest the accompanying destruction, of property, the environment and of themselves would be transformed into a more efficacious movement. One that has a better chance of success.

    Administrative Detention is a real problem, however describing this form or protest as legitimate intelligent opposition is nearly impossible.

    Just because an act is political or claimed to be political doesn't make it so. Didn't the UDA and possibly the IPLO each carry out a rape and claim it was political? Is selling grass to fund a Republican Group political or criminal? Some things will criminalise your cause quicker than Thatcher or May ever could in their wildest, sickest nightmares. I am not equating bonfires to rape or drugdealing just demonstrating that the means of protest is vital. We are quickly becoming as depoliticised as the Loyalists. That is a bigger problem than my or anyone else's gate.

  6. Simon,

    I took it as a given that you were not trying to insult DaithiD.

    Tradition ebbs and flows. There is nothing unique about the same happening with bonfires.

    There are obvious links between bonfires and the current internment/detention. The date that the fires take place on indicate that and the statement I cited above. Are they an answer to it? They are in part a response to it. Not a very effective response. The establishment will tell us that no action not deemed legitimate by it is an answer to any injustice. I suppose at some level any protest fulfils a need. Getting wasted at a bonfire is no more effective than getting wasted at a function for prisoners. Both happen.

    True political activist is a very subjective term. True by what standard? What are people at bonfires doing that I and others did not do when we were "true" political activists? The "true" political activists of the IRA deeply divided the nationalist community. I don't have a fixed view of what the "true" political activist is because activism is a very fluid concept.

    I don't agree that bonfires fuel the urge to destroy. In the recent case I would think the state raiding the wood was perhaps the prime factor. But I suppose we will need the dust to settle before we can be more sure about that.

    I don't think it is a movement either as traditionally understood. I doubt it is even strategic. These are useful elements in political activism but activism cannot be reduced to them.

    I think it is very possible to describe bonfires as a legitimate expression against injustice. A hopelessly ineffectual expression if ending an injustice is the goal. But legitimacy derives from something other than effectiveness otherwise the only legitimate actions would be those that succeed.

    While it may be accurate that both the UDA and the IPLO described rape as political, I have no recollection of either doing so. I guess they could have been that stupid but I am not aware of it. I recall UVF people being denied political status by their organisation when they were convicted of rape/murder. If those who build bonfires as an act against injustice why would their action not be political? If not political are we to assume it criminal?

    In my view (and I wrote this in the Sunday Tribune about 18 years ago) republicans who bought into the GFA and turned republicanism on its head showed a level of depoliticisation that loyalists might have difficulty achieving. I also feel that the failure to confront the summersaults has done more to strip republicanism of its political content than Thatcher's criminalisation policies.

    The bonfire culture should be abandoned because of its political and strategic ineffectiveness, it's negative impact on the communities in which they take place - not because they are some manifestation of an anti social criminality.

  7. AM, I think you're correct in saying that Republicanism has been stripped of its political content. The GFA was certainly a catalyst for that but a year or probably more before the first ceasefire came Sinn Fein's support for PPPs or Public Private Partnerships on Belfast City Council which was a sign that Sinn Fein were moving to the right.

    The GFA has primarily done more harm in criminalising Republicanism than Thatcher because Thatcher couldn't criminalise Republicanism at all. She tried and failed. The IRA certainly divided the Nationalist community but to an irreparable degree? I don't think so. Could the situation have been worse if the IRA didn't exist? I think many things point to that being the case. Could the peace have been "better won"? Definitely.

    I guess I should have written IPLO and UDA members rather than simply refer to the groups. I just didn't want to differentiate "corporate responsibility" from individual responsibility for fear of sounding like John Alderdice.

    The negative impact on the community is the anti-social criminality itself. It doesn't matter if those involved are involved because of Administrative Detention and anecdotal evidence points to the contrary but even if they were the act of tyre burning or the drugs or underage drinking or vandalism which is inextricably linked to the bonfires does the just protest against internment no favours. In fact I'd go so far as to say it definitely harms the cause.

    We were all involved more or less in some form of the anti social behaviour listed above when we were young. However, we should have learnt as a society by now that, as a means of protest, it isn't efficacious and if it isn't that, why do it at all? Which is were we agree I think? The political and strategic ineffectiveness of bonfires is not because it's a flame per se but because it has a negative impact on the community which is the anti-social behaviour.

    Another flame which would have a positive impact would be a beacon. Both bonfires and beacons burn but one brings much more to the community than the other. The political activists can bring their activism into a positive light rather than a negative one.

    There's no guarantee a beacon would be a panacea but they'd be worth trying.

  8. Simon,

    not much to disagree with there.

    But even a move to the right can be political as much as a move to the left. It is the sheer absence of political critique and analysis by the grassroots when faced with such moves that strips it of politics. How can a political grassroots fail to respond but just go along unthinkingly? If there was a march down the Falls Road tomorrow demanding that Gaza be bombed, we know sadly that the grassroots would turn up. How that unthinking lot are any more politicised than the bonfire crowd I fail to see. They are certainly not anywhere near as political as the loyalist Sophie Long for example.

    Not everything the SF leadership have done has been terrible. What has been terrible is that they got everything across the line with such ease with nothing resembling political critique being placed in its way.

  9. AM "Not everything the SF leadership have done has been terrible. What has been terrible is that they got everything across the line with such ease with nothing resembling political critique being placed in its way."

    Maybe this was due to war weariness and the fact that an extraordinary amount of trust had built up in the leadership over the previous 25 years or so of conflict. The other factor is change has been incremental most of the time with a lot of little steps over the past 20 years since the GFA. If the ceasefire was called one day and decommissioning, Gerry Kelly voicing support for the police and informing and the leadership meeting the Queen of England the next day there would surely be a political critique? Maybe even a violent one. However change has been incremental and the leadership brought many with them.

    The old criticism of Sinn Fein was it was inextricably linked to the IRA. That can't be said today which makes their project easier. The project could be managed much better, with more emphasis on socialism than Multinationals. But I guess Ireland is traditionally right wing and the voters lap all that stuff about jobs (albeit heavily subsidised jobs) bring created. Not so much Chavez as Chablis.

    I think the criticism of the grassroots has some basis but maybe exaggerated due to your disagreement with the policies. The references to sheep are made as people can't see how Republicans can support policies in that manner or form. Perhaps they are politicised to a greater extent than the critics realise and that is the greater flaw or worry in both their support and in the criticism of it?

    Just like the arguments that the leadership have all been informers the argument that the grassroots are depoliticised is not as frightening as the understanding that they're not informers and the grassroots are politicised and despite that this is how they behave. However, maybe the truth lies somewhere within both our arguments?

  10. Simon,

    Joe Smith made up a religion in the front of people's eyes and they bought into it despite knowing it was a con. They conned themselves that it was not a con.

    The SF leadership lied, shafted and stroked the grassroots from the outset of the peace process and the grassroots swallowed the lot of it. Every line the grassroots drew in the sand was kicked in their faces and they celebrated it. Being politicised is the opposite of blind faith.

    The incremental approach was in my view more to do with playing the long game against the unionists and not because of the grassroots acting as a brake. The grassroots for long enough could be sold near enough anything, just as they are being sold the notion that going into coalition with FF or FG is a progressive move.

    I don't think there is any exaggeration in my view of the grassroots: some people are of the view that I have understated the position. I think that is inaccurate also. I feel I called it accurately.

    I never bought the argument that all the leadership are informers. Some, yes, but in my view a minority. But the majority of the grassroots followed blindly which is a strong indicator of no politics.

  11. AM, "The incremental approach was in my view more to do with playing the long game against the unionists and not because of the grassroots acting as a brake." My point wasn't that they acted as a brake, in that the grassroots prevented further change, but that the long game mitigated against dissent. A significant and important difference.

    I don't often interact with Sinn Fein people so am only looking from the outside in. I have often noticed a curious dogmatism and intransigent support for the party line so maybe you're right.

  12. Simon,

    long or short they could hardly deny the direction in which it was going. Anybody thinking politically would not have been bamboozled by the long game and its increments. The speed with which people on the ground changed their position tells us something: in some cases overnight.

  13. AM, bonfires at least invites communal participation, burning someone's car is different. How did you view the anti - immigrant graffiti that was being daubed on private property around the North? Is that anti-state too?

  14. DaithiD,

    I imagine that Simon is more right on the question of communal participation. Bonfires in my view alienate the bulk of people in the community. We need to bear in mind that we live in a world that is more attuned to issues like pollution and the environment. The tolerance towards bonfires is not like it was many decades ago. There may be some comparison to be made between the attitudes towards bonfires and those towards smoking. Smoking is becoming increasingly zonal, psychologically and spatially.

    I find no problem with people opposing bonfires. I have a problem with the attempt to criminalise the bonfire culture. Cars seemed to have burned not as an extension of that culture but as a response to the state raiding wood.

    I imagine the anti-immigrant graffiti you refer to is very much anti-state. It is an expression of opposition to state policy on immigration don't you think?

    It also underlines that being anti-state means nothing in terms of progressive politics. The rich are very anti-state when to comes to matters of taxation.

  15. The RUC used to actually burn our bonfires too, so they had less to deal with on the 11th night.

    Why was Tony Taylor sent back? Was he a pain in the arse to the Shinners?


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