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 .