It is irresponsible to allow youths to dictate where bonfires are set up

Posted By: July 03, 2017

Tom Kelly. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, July 3, 2017

Turning on the BBC evening news last week I watched incredulously as some young man bragged about taking over a car park for an Eleventh Night bonfire and somehow he bizarrely tried to claim the moral high ground by saying this action was part of his culture.

I had to pinch myself to test that I wasn’t in some parallel universe. But of course, Northern Ireland is a parallel universe because in no other part of the UK or Ireland would this misguided youth and his ragtag bunch of mates be allowed to get away with laying siege to a car park for an illegal bonfire which none of the residents want.

To later learn that a local authority – Belfast City Council – was complicit in coming to an agreement or understanding with teenagers to ‘store’ hundreds of pallets and then return them to create an illegal bonfire in a residential area convinced me that, at times, Northern Ireland is simply a distorted and dysfunctional place. What is worse is that we indulge these abnormalities when any normal society would stamp them out.

There is no doubt that tens of thousands of ordinary unionists celebrate the 12th of July as an expression of cultural identity and whilst it’s a non-shared tradition Northern Ireland should be broad enough to embrace it. However, sometimes the cultural element is lost to open and naked sectarianism and where that exists it needs to be called out for what it is.

It is well past time that we asked our politicians, authorities, and police to grow up and tackle the assumptions that the flying of paramilitary flags in public spaces or the clear violation of environmental laws are anything to do with anyone’s culture. They are not.

Crossing the city last week, I saw scores of bonfires being set up, many near children’s play parks and some close to residential or commercial buildings. The location of some of these bonfires is a hazardous threat to the people living near them.

It seems that in Belfast any criticism of the youths who take over the streets to build these bonfires is regarded as a direct threat against Orange culture. It’s not. It’s irresponsible to allow these young people to ride roughshod over the rights of residents.

Fear of balaclava-hooded youths still stalks some streets in Belfast. Unionist representatives all too often excuse such behavior as the exuberance of youth or worse still defend it as part of a tradition. We need to get real here. Go to a Guy Fawkes night in England and one will see distinct differences in the atmosphere around their bonfires as opposed to here.

We live now in smoke-free zones, yet tyres are still illegally burned on pallet stacked pyres, the emergency services are on full alert at public expense and the clear-up to parks, roads and other surfaces post the Eleventh Night are also repaired at public expense.

Many people enjoy the Eleventh Night celebrations but most people in Northern Ireland don’t go anywhere near them. One doesn’t need to be a fortune teller to know that on some of these bonfires there will be pictures of nationalist politicians, the Pope and Irish Tricolours – all ready to be cremated on pyres of hate. It’s likely that some loyalist firebrand will for extra publicity purposes find a statue of the Virgin Mary to pile onto the pallets and tyres. There will be the usual outcries of foul play but nothing will be done. Burning the effigies of public figures or religious icons in the name of culture is not an offense in Northern Ireland but it should be.

It’s a wry observation but a celebration that is supposed to mark civil and religious liberty for all often end up making a mockery of modern day interpretations of civil and religious rights.

Ultimately people, whatever their background, want to celebrate, remember or honor their history and tradition. Most want to do it in a way that does not impinge on or threaten the rights of others.

Unfortunately, there is far too much cross-cultural clubbing of each other which is all about cultural supremacy and the weaponizing of traditions, language and identity.

What happened last week in Belfast was quite simply wrong. Teenagers don’t get to dictate terms when it comes to breaching common law and public bodies are not supposed to facilitate them. At least CS Lewis used a wardrobe to reach his Narnia – here you just have to turn on the local news.