Posted By: July 17, 2014


PEACEFUL Twelfth changes everything and the first thing it has changed is to make eleventh night bonfires the new focus of complaint.Bonfires should be easier to address than parades because they do not move around but the growing habit of burning symbols and slogans is projecting their offensiveness as poisonously as a contentious march.

Gerry Adams has now complained to the police about a ‘hate crime’ after his effigy was hung from a pyre in Antrim. Last year, Adams described so-called Thatcher death parties as “understandable at a certain level” so he may have understood when loyalists burned Thatcher’s effigy on bonfires after the Anglo-Irish Agreement. However, he will not extend that understanding further and his impatience is increasingly shared across liberal society.

This goes beyond Northern Ireland politics to the eternal disappointment of the left at what the lower orders are actually like. The class-war antagonism cuts both ways, as some of the objects being newly consigned to the flames have no obvious tribal dimension. Gay pride flags are the clearest example of bonfires becoming an up-yours barbecue of establishment sacred cows rather than a ‘supremacist’ display by the establishment’s foot-soldiers. Equally frustrated chippiness could be a factor in the burning of Polish flags (an attack on multiculturalism as much as Polish Catholicism) or pictures of Stormont (an attack on the whole system as much Sinn Féin’s role in it).

Unlike parading, which is unique to our politics, bonfire nights are common across the world and often have an anarchic pedigree.

Our closest example in every sense is the bonfire tradition of Sussex, which long predates the Guy Fawkes’ Night celebrations it coincides with and which has been associated at various times across the centuries with lethal rioting, mass drunkenness and attacks on the rich and their property. The Sussex tradition is periodically tamed, only for the literally burning resentment to break out and thumb its nose at authority again, most recently in 2003 when a dozen bonfire organisers in Lewes were arrested for a ‘hate crime’ after burning a replica caravan with effigies of a traveller family inside. Sussex is not disputed territory so its bonfires have not been drawn into notions of a do-or-die ‘culture war’. In Northern Ireland, every feral urchin guarding a pile of pallets now uses the c-word as confidently as they use the other c-word, implying that every aspect of their bonfire is an inalienable right.

When ‘culture’ entered our political lexicon at this level in the early 1980s it was met with widespread derision. Most people thought culture was what was on the South Bank Show, while provincial Northern Ireland had customs at best. However, as every sport, hobby and pastime has been adopted into the pantheons of British or Irish civilisation, we have moved from the elitist concept of culture to the anthropological and relativist model, where culture is everything we do and no culture is ‘better’ than another.

Bonfires fatally undermine this fashionable nonsense by requiring us to pretend that burning tyres is the same as painting the Mona Lisa (some people try to preserve the construct by claiming unionists have ‘no culture’, although the whole point of cultural relativism is that everyone has an equally valid culture.) If we are going to return to cultural discernment it will be important to say so openly, otherwise bonfire-builders will interpret it as just another one-sided salvo in the culture war. We should also admit that a measure of revolting peasantry is inevitable and a ritualised outlet for it may even be desirable. Bonfire traditions elsewhere have survived and evolved precisely through this understanding.

Class and culture are not academic details. They are the basis of emotions and arguments that have been used around bonfires by loyalists and others to manipulate young people, preserve local power bases and acquire authority through the value-free funding and regulatory schemes desperately attempted by officialdom. The victimhood of offended Catholics is nothing compared to the plight of Protestant householders with a bonfire on their doorstep. They face months of anti-social behaviour culminating in the risk of serious property damage, plus eviction if they dare to complain. These communities cannot take charge of their bonfires because the authorities have put their tormentors in charge. Debunking loyalist claims to be defending their class and their culture is a prerequisite for exercising any kind of regulation over what goes on, in and around bonfires. Then, perhaps, we might have some hope of becoming as British as Sussex.