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The Twelfth: ‘Celebrating One’s Own Culture Should Not Require the Oppression of Another’s’

Bonfires to mark the day in Northern Ireland are often used not as a symbol of one’s national identity but as a marker of territory, writes Emma deSouza

A man carries a Northern Ireland flag in silhouette past the burning Craigyhill loyalist bonfire in Larne, Co Antrim, on the ‘Eleventh night’ to usher in the Twelfth commemorations in 2022. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA/Alamy

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For many of Northern Ireland’s unionists, the Twelfth of July is an annual cultural celebration commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. For nationalists, and many of those living in Northern Ireland however, the only reflection of their culture they see represented during these demonstrations are their cultural and religious symbols being set atop towering infernos to be burned in what many see as an act of hate. 

In the run up to the Twelfth, cross-community towns and villages are adorned with Union flags, bunting, and curbs painted red, white, and blue. To many in Britain this might seem harmless, but Northern Ireland is a shared space still healing from decades of sectarian violence that was rooted in British supremacy, Irish subservience, and two diverging political aspirations: remaining in the United Kingdom versus reunifying with the Republic of Ireland.

National symbols in this context carry a different meaning, and flags are often used not as a symbol of one’s national identity, but rather as a territory marker – and for many, a threat. That threat is compounded by the proliferation of paramilitary flags – flags of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – which are often placed in cross-community areas such as integrated schools, shopping centres and housing estates. 

Last year, there were more than 50 sectarian incidents reported as hate crimes to the police during the Twelfth, included burning effigies and Irish flags, and signs calling for lethal violence against Catholics.

This year, a bonfire in Moygashel featured a poster of the Irish Taoiseach, Irish flags and an actual boat carrying an anti-Good Friday Agreement slogan. In Co Tyrone, an effigy of Northern Ireland’s First Minister designate, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, was set alight. And in north Belfast, an effigy of a fellow Sinn Fein politician hanging from a noose was burned. Political posters of fellow nationalist party, the SDLP, and the cross-community Alliance party were also placed on bonfires.

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These displays of hate are not a one-off, they happen every single year.

Consider for a moment if similarly hostile acts were committed in London – if Irish flags, or French flags, or Israeli flags, were set alight alongside effigies and calls for lethal violence against these communities. There would an immediate and impassioned outcry against such rampant hate being flagrantly displayed, and in the name of British culture no less.

Why then is it okay in Northern Ireland? In any conscientious democracy, this abject bigotry would not be tolerated and, in a contested political space with the Northern Ireland’s history of sectarian violence, these displays can have very real consequences.

Unionist politicians have condemned the sectarian pyres, but there are also those within the unionist and loyalist community who seek to label these displays as political protest and decree a need to protect free speech. But free speech does not give one licence to hate speech without consequence. This is no protest; it is a targeted series of hate crimes against one’s own neighbours. 

There are more than 200 Twelfth bonfires lit across Northern Ireland, and while there are those which do not burn flags or effigies, they are nevertheless an astronomical burden on the public purse and pose significant risk to life and property. Rather than remove bonfires that threaten to burn down people’s homes, the council boards up the windows and doors, and firefighters attend the bonfire – not to put out the flames but to douse these homes in water to mitigate against fire damage.

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Any attempt to dismantle the enormous structures in the run-up to their burning results in unambiguous and indiscriminate threats of paramilitary violence, regardless of if the concerned parties are average citizens, hired contractors or members of the police or fire service. Last year, the bonfire season cost the Housing Executive almost £300,000, this includes £136,378 for debris removal and grass reinstatement, and £127,966 for protecting homes.

Bonfires are just one component of the Twelfth celebrations. They are typically lit on the Eleventh of July night ahead of Orange Order parades which march across Northern Ireland and belt out the ‘Sash’ – a popular unionist song celebrating the defeat of King James II. These parades have also been a point of tension between communities, as marching bands seek to impose their brand of proud nationalism on homes lining roads in Catholic areas. The cost of policing last year’s Twelfth events is £1.4 million.

Meanwhile, a series of devastating budget cuts are set to hit Northern Ireland’s most disadvantaged children with the cutting of the Holiday Hunger payment scheme for 96,000 children alongside several other education cuts, including an end to Happy Healthy Minds, Digital Devices Scheme, and the Baby Book scheme – all of which assist children on the poverty line.

Bonfires can be benign cultural events – one need only look at Guy Fawkes celebrations in Britain. But celebrating one’s own culture should not require the oppression of another’s. Those who seek to stoke the flames of hatred do a disservice to their own community, further isolating a political ideology which, electorally, is shrinking.

The bonfires in Northern Ireland are unregulated and uncontrolled, many have no health and safety protocols, no public liability insurance, and pose a real risk to people and property alike. It does not have to be this way. With regulation, safety protocols, designated sites and zero tolerance for bigoted signs and hate symbols, these events could reduce not only the strain on the public purse, but that which is placed on the shoulders of citizens every single year. 

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