THE depressing annual carnival of bonfire madness is in full swing as we head towards the Twelfth, with the usual diet of cultural indignation supplemented this year by a hefty helping of Protocol paranoia.
Bonfires lit prematurely; police and Council intervening to protect lives and property (although just the once as we went to press); posters and flags ready to be burned; a bonfire on a peace line; another outside a fire station – a grim drama enacted against a background of total silence from unionist politicians. Privately, many of these politicians agree with what the rest of us know and the bonfire builders continue to deny: that the bonfires are an environmental obscenity and a slap in the face of the very idea of law and order.
But, as ever, the fear of losing support trumps the notion of public responsibility and duty and the act of speaking up for the environment, for public safety and basic respect is again portrayed as an attack on culture and tradition.
In Belfast, the most problematic bonfire is the one on the Tigers Bay/New Lodge interface, about which the statutory authorities are currently knocking their heads together. The bonfire was traditionally lit away from the interface, but when a new location had to be found it was decided that it was to be at a sectarian flashpoint. A large part of the motivation for this is the desire of loyalists to promote instability as a way of keeping pressure up over the Protocol. A similar tactic was used some weeks ago when Protocol protests and violence were brought to the interface with the Springfield Road in order to ramp up tension and conflict.
Sure enough, the Tigers Bay bonfire has been the scene of a litany of violent and intimidatory incidents and local nationalist representatives have appealed for it to be removed, while their counterparts on the other side of the fence seem perfectly happy for the sectarian travesty to remain.
The decision by City Hall to send in contractors accompanied by police to remove a bonfire at Bloomfield Walkway in East Belfast this week was a welcome one, recognising as it did the public safety concerns thrown up by the edifice. The good news is that there was little or no adverse reaction to the intervention, and while that’s no guarantee that doing the right thing in Tigers Bay would not cause a violent response, it shows that there can be at least tacit acknowledgment within loyalist circles that too much is too much. And the Council’s Bloomfield decision – along with that of the PSNI to protect constractors – sends a message to the law-abiding majority that there may be a growing acknowledgment in the corridors of power that while allowing consequence-free law-breaking may mean a quiet life in the short term, it piles future problems up higher than the pallets on the Beast of Ballyduff.
Robust statutory responses when required are welcome, but it is only when unionism and loyalism stop hiding from the truth that this annual boil will be lanced.