Row Over Bonfires Threatens to Set Sectarian Conflict Alight

In the late 1970s, a British minister let the cat out of the bag when he admitted that his government’s aim was an “acceptable level of violence”. Today the undeclared aims of the peace Page 5 - Bonfiresprocess are an acceptable level of sectarian division and of sectarian conflict. Thus, great efforts are made to convince us all that we live in a new era of peace and tranquility.

For this reason the marching season has officiously “passed off relatively peacefully”.  This claim can only be made by half-ignoring events on the ground and by swamping areas of potential street conflict with hundreds of police when it is deemed necessary.

The reality in working class areas is somewhat different. In early July, the PSNI sought to have an alleged Loyalist leader remanded in custody in order to calm the situation at the Short Strand/Lower Newtownards Road interface. It was revealed in court that up to that time there had been 64 straight days of trouble in the area. Similarly, there are sectarian incidents most nights at the Twadell protest camp. The days before and after the 12th were marked by conflict at many interfaces and the by now infamous pre-arranged fight in the centre of Belfast which drew hundreds of teenagers to the area.

Politicians whip up division

Whilst the politicians who sit around the Executive table spend much of their time promoting the “benefits” of the peace process, they spend more time stoking the fires of sectarianism. They do so precisely because it is in their interests to do so.

The sharpest wars of words between the politicians this year have been around bonfires. Bonfires on the 11th night have been a tradition in Protestant working class areas for decades.  Not everyone who lives in these areas gets involved, of course. In fact, many Protestant workers and their families actively plan to go away on holiday over the 12th period. This was very much the practice of class conscious trade union, labour and socialist activists in the past. Today, many Protestant workers continue see the Orange Order as a backward organisation which offers nothing to them.

There is a world of difference between this class opposition to bonfires and parades and the opposition of Sinn Féin and the SDLP. These parties attack the sectarianism of the bonfire organisers but their criticisms of the bonfire organisers, and the mainly young people who congregate around the bonfires on the 11th, is intensely sectarian.

Solutions must come from communities

The conduct around the building and burning of bonfires is an immediate issue which requires immediate solutions. We cannot wait until next year.  The main victims of bonfires which are too large, too close to housing, or which contain material which lets off toxic fumes are the immediate communities in the area. The solution is not to ban bonfires, nor to heavily police them. Attempts by one community to coerce “better behaviour” from the other community will never work.

The solution must come from within the communities which host the bonfires. Local trade union and genuine community activists are best placed to take the lead in convening representative meetings which discuss and agree the conduct of bonfires. Smaller, less toxic bonfires, which are well away from housing, and which are properly stewarded to prevent anti-social behaviour, should be the immediate aim. Fewer bonfires, and bonfires which do not seek to cause offence and increase levels of tension, are also necessary.

Ultimately, it is in the interests of both Protestant and Catholic working class people that the traditions of bonfires and parading dwindle and become less and less important. The same applies absolutely to all manifestations of sectarianism in the Catholic community, including the very existence of parties which deliberately promote and thrive on sectarian division. This will only come about when real alternatives are created – fighting unions, genuine community campaigns, and a mass political party which seeks to unite Protestants and Catholics in a struggle against sectarianism and for a socialist future.

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