Loyalists assert themselves through controversial bonfires…

Dr Amanda Hall is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading. You can follow her on Twitter.

Each year, hundreds of bonfires are lit across Northern Ireland on 11 July – Eleventh Night – by Protestants, Unionists, and Loyalists commemorating the Battle of the Boyne. The vast majority pass without incident, drawing only curious attention about the reasons for the celebration or due to some unique qualities.

This year’s castle-shaped structure in Portadown is drawing positive attention already.

However, not all bonfires are seen in this light.

Issues with them are clear and have been discussed previously on this platform.

A small number of bonfires each year are mired in controversy as individuals and groups use them to signal political and social opinions about both their own community and the “other side.”

Recent research indicates these issues have developed since the 1990s through changes in the practice of bonfires that exploit vulnerabilities left in the wake of the formal peace process. This signals that “peace” cannot be taken for granted – particularly as new challenges posed by Brexit enflame tensions.

While historically linked to the commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne – also marked by Orange Order marches – bonfires have become increasingly decoupled from this event. They now serve to build group spirit and strength (in particular within Loyalist groups who claim responsibility for the structures) as well as to draw a boundary between this “in-group” and their “out-group” (including Catholics, Nationalists, and Republicans).

The changes to the celebration of Eleventh Night since the early 1990s are visually striking. Bonfires during the Troubles are remembered as relatively casual affairs as neighbours gathered around piles of scrap wood and tree branches, often collected by local youth. Communities engaged in friendly competition to build the biggest structure and host the largest party, complete with street games, singing, and dancing. Some even invited Catholic neighbours. Recollections of bonfires during the Troubles do not include significant paramilitary participation in Eleventh Night itself, though rioting and targeted violence were relatively common in the period around the Eleventh and Twelfth each year.

In contrast to these casual neighbourhood festivities, the largest “monster” bonfires now reach over 100 feet tall, built out of rings of wooden pallets (often internally supported by rubber tyres) and looming over nearby homes and businesses as organisers compete for bragging rights. These are impressive feats of engineering, requiring significant material and practical support; the largest bonfire in 2021, at Craigyhill, was reported to be over 140 feet tall and constructed from over 17,000 pallets.

More controversially, these monster bonfires are increasingly adorned with sectarian symbols – from effigies and campaign posters of prominent nationalists, to Irish tri-colour flags and signs reading “KAI” or “KAT” (acronyms for “Kill All Irish” and “Kill All Taigs,” using a derogatory word for the same group). These were new additions as the Troubles began to wane, with flags first appearing in the discussion of the structures in 1994.

These changes are also accompanied by a loss in the perceived legitimacy of these structures by those who do not celebrate them.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey has asked the question “How much do you agree or disagree with each of these statements about July and August bonfires . . . Bonfires are a legitimate form of cultural celebration” each year since 2016 as part of the survey’s “Community Relations” module. While those identifying as Protestants became increasingly likely to see bonfires as legitimate during this period, those identifying as Catholic or as having no religion increasingly take the opposite view.

In 2016, 24% of Catholic respondents and 53% of respondents with no religion “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that bonfires were legitimate; by 2021, these numbers dropped to 21% and 37%, respectively. This was actually an increase on the previous year, when only 17% of Catholics and 32% of those with no religion saw bonfires as legitimate. In contrast, Protestant views of the legitimacy of bonfires has grown. 57% “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that bonfires were legitimate in 2016; the most recent survey places this number at 63%.

Despite this question of legitimacy – over a third of those who bonfire builders claim to represent do not see the celebrations as legitimate – where these bonfires cause controversy or pose risks to health and safety, often little can be done to control them.

Firefighters attempting to control the spread of flames have previously come under attack, while those involved with efforts to deconstruct bonfires before they are lit have found it necessary to work under police protection and cover of darkness, even when local politicians and residents have been in support of removing the structure. In other cases, the threat of violence has seen contractors refuse to participate in dismantling structures.

It is clear that agents of the state have little control over or legitimacy among those responsible for building the structures. This pulls power away from formal structures and placing it in the hands of potentially violent actors.

Bonfires are a key way that this transference of power is demonstrated and reaffirmed.

These changes have not emerged out of a vacuum. Instead, they are a response to decades of concerns among some in the Protestant, Unionist, or Loyalist community that they are being “left behind” by the peace process. This has been a common refrain for decades, dating back to the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973. However, these calls have become louder in recent years as many of the avenues through which hegemony, power, culture, and identity were previously demonstrated – ranging from the halls of Stormont to Orange Order parades – have changed.

The Parades Commission was established following controversy at Drumcree in the 1990s. Since its establishment, parades have been highly regulated by both their organisers and by the state – including bans on singing sectarian songs and re-routing parades away from neighbourhoods where they are unwelcome.

Bonfires have been under no such restrictions.

In fact, bonfires have become cultural free radicals. Unregulated by any specific body, and with the Orange Order increasingly distancing themselves from celebrations, they are instead driven by local desire and capacity, with any restrictions dictated by councils – who have proven themselves influenced by either local demands or the threat of violence.

While there have been increasingly loud calls to discourage sectarian demonstrations and to celebrate bonfires safely, including from politicians, activists, and community groups, efforts to impose limitations or encourage changes to practice have also been heavily resisted.

For example, after Belfast City Council tried to place an injunction on bonfires in 2017, Jamie Bryson accused Sinn Féin of starting a “cultural war.” In the same year, those celebrating at Sandy Row complained that it was “not fair the kids have to suffer” after funding for their children’s celebration was retracted due to concerns about the size of the main pyre. While some have welcomed changes aiming to make Eleventh Night more environmentally friendly – such as the introduction of beacons in place of pallets at some sites in 2009 – there has also been pushback, with initiatives seen as efforts as restrictions on tradition and culture.

Political support for reigning in bonfires has also been made conditional on other factors, signalling their symbiotic relationship with other aspects of life. The DUP withdrew from a Derry and Strabane District Council working group concerned with the issue in 2021, citing issues of “disenfranchisement” within the council. This included the implementation of the Protocol and the decision by the council not to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary. Instead, the DUP declared their intention to work with builders directly.

A 2017 report by the Community Relations Council found that many believe controversial bonfires are used as a means of “extorting, holding communities to ransom” by paramilitary groups supporting the festivities, while efforts to address these issues risk further legitimising these actors. The 2021 report of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition heard that, while bonfires were “a key element in the heritage and traditions within the Unionist and Loyalist community,” the inclusion of offensive and sectarian material was a cause of great concern for many.

Yet, despite these concerns, bonfires with these images endure.

This is because, ultimately, it isn’t about Eleventh Night.

Builders of the most controversial of 2021’s bonfires, built near the peace line between Tigers Bay and New Lodge in Belfast, framed it clearly, saying:

“This is no longer about a bonfire; it goes to the core of the one-sided peace process over the past 23 years. Unionism must give, and nationalism must get. We have nothing left to give and we as a community will peacefully and lawfully defend the right of the bonfire builders to celebrate our culture.”

This statement, coupled with the “threat to life and serious disorder” made by Loyalist groups in response to legal challenges to the structure, prompted a flurry of political support for the bonfire, including key statements from Democratic Unionist Party leaders Paul Givan and Jeffery Donaldson. The mounted legal action failed, and the bonfire ultimately went ahead as scheduled.

Bonfires have become a key red line for those responsible, who use them to reassert territorial control and political power. This has serious implications for the future of peace, as this strength can be leveraged not only to influence political debate but also to support the kinds of violence which emerged in response to the Northern Ireland Protocol in spring 2021.

The ability of these bonfires and their construction to drive the political debate and force the hand of politicians is particularly concerning given Northern Ireland’s precarious peace in the face of Brexit and the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.

These political conditions have made understanding this link increasingly time-sensitive, as Loyalist dissatisfaction with the state has the potential to spill over into widespread violence – as seen in the Spring 2021 riots across the region.

Changes to bonfires over time signal the vulnerabilities of the peace established in 1998, particularly as many of the same groups lighting and controlling these structures are the ones who are directly challenging that peace in many other ways. From street riots to formally withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement, these actors are eager to show their control over the future of the region. As society remains divided, and optimism for the future seems to be fading in some quarters, bonfires are a canary in the coal mine of peace. In becoming more divisive, they are setting in place a feedback loop that will be increasingly difficult to challenge the longer it is allowed to develop.

Understanding the relationship between cultural celebrations and violent actors provides a key insight into the trajectory of peace in Northern Ireland and the extent to which the longevity of the Good Friday Agreement is not sufficient, by itself, to ensure that the region remains peaceful into the future.

While it remains too early to know how controversial Eleventh Night 2022 may be, the changes to these rituals in the last two decades are indicative of how the conflict in Northern Ireland has shifted forms but has not been fully addressed by the terms of peace. While most bonfires remain positive events, controversial elements at a few sites risk changing the celebration more broadly. Where Loyalists have chosen to use these structures as a way to communicate strength and make statements about larger issues, bonfires are no longer about celebrating the past but about staking a claim over the direction of the future, making the present a key moment to be taken seriously.

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