WE need to talk about bonfires. Not next year. Not next summer. Not next July when the hate symbols are going up on the lethal towering structures. We need to talk about them now.
We’ve just witnessed another ‘celebration’ of loyalist culture which involved hanging effigies of women, displays of the most vile misogynistic insults and the sending of vast columns of toxic, often carcinogenic smoke up into the sky to disperse around our towns and cities to rain lethal particulates down on the streets and houses below. And it’s going to happen next year. And the year after that. With no-one being held to account and statutory authorities continuing to wring their hands and look the other way.
The 2013 film The Purge imagines a dystopian future in which the annual national holiday is the ‘Purge’ – a day during which all wrongdoing and crime are decriminalised and people are free to do as they please without fear of prosecution or consequence. The Purge imagines a short period of 12 hours – here in the North a purge around bonfires is declared from early spring to July 11. During that period not only are the aformentioned sectarian outrages the order of the day, every basic tenet of health and safety is ditched as often drunk adults and children clamber to dizzying heights on structures that one unionist politician described without a trace of irony as “engineering feats”, but which in reality are monstrous accidents waiting to happen. And, just as in the movie, not a single person is held to account.

Last year a warning went out when a viral clip on social media showed a reveller fleeing a bonfire with his entire body ablaze – he suffered life-changing injuries as a result. That warning was ignored and nothing changed. This year a 35-year-old father-of-two fell to his death from a bonfire in Larne whose builders were vainly attempting to compete in height and scale with a 200-feet neighbouring pyre. Those unionist politicians who by active encouragement or cowardly silence condone these annual displays of hatred and lethality must bear responsibility for the consequences, both in terms of death and injury and the incalculable damage done to cross-community relations.
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” goes the old saying. We can profitably tweak that aphorism to observe that if the statutory authorities think intervening to uphold law and order around bonfires is a challenge, they should consider the vast extent of bigotry and hate that these fires store up for the future – particularly among those children who continue to be told that it’s all culture and tradition.
Let the bonfires take place, but let them take place in a respectful and orderly fashion that threatens no-one – whether that be those who build them or watch them, or those who are targeted on them. Unionism has shown itself incapable of displaying the leadership required. It is therefore a job for the various statutory agencies. The first step will be the hardest, but that step must be taken.