Bonfires: Solutions must come from working class communities

Once again, the issue of bonfires has become the subject of controversy. For many working class Protestants, Eleventh Night bonfires are part of their culture, while many Catholics see them as triumphalist displays. Less prominent are the anti-internment bonfires organised in some nationalist areas by young people and ‘dissident’ republican groups, re-enacting a tradition introduced by the Provisional republican movement in the 1970s.

The recent motion passed by Belfast City Council – supported by Sinn Féin, SDLP, People Before Profit and Alliance councillors – which called for bonfire sites to be cleared, necessarily requiring the presence of police, will only serve to antagonise the situation. This was graphically demonstrated by the rioting in Catholic areas in response to attempts to remove bonfire material. If the Council insists on the same approach at contentious bonfires in Protestant areas next year, it will provoke a massive response. The Socialist Party believes any genuine solution must come from the working class communities effected, not be imposed from outside.

Genuine fears

The disgusting examples of an effigy of Martin McGuinness in a coffin at one Eleventh Night bonfire and racist slurs against Celtic player Scott Sinclair at another have been widely condemned, even by DUP leader Arlene Foster, as have the burning of election posters and national flags. Disgracefully, these actions have been defended by some, including South Belfast DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, who bluntly stated that we live in a “free society” and even compared it to those who criticise the DUP at LGBT+ rights demonstrations.

Many residents who live close to bonfire sites have genuine health and safety concerns which will, no doubt, be particularly in their mind in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. Some have suffered damage to their property which could have been much worse had firefighters not played a role in cooling buildings down. Windows at an apartment block were left shattered and cracked due to the Eleventh Night pyre off Sandy Row and residents in the New Lodge area raised health and safety concerns about an anti-internment bonfire organised by young people there.

Blatant sectarianism, however, is not on display at all bonfires. There are many bonfire events held, most of which pass off without the kind of sectarian provocations mentioned above. Likewise, most bonfire organisers do take health and safety concerns into consideration and they take place at a considerable distance from residential property.

Bonfires are part of many working class communities’ culture, from Guy Fawkes Night in England to the summer solstice bonfires in Cork. Bonfires in Northern Ireland, of course, have a particular colouration. However, it is in no way useful to dismiss them as simply driven by bigotry or to scoff at their cultural value for those involved. In working class Protestant communities, in particular, there is a long tradition of young people working together to build bonfires in the summer.

Sectarian politicians antagonise the situation

Attempts to demonise those who take part in bonfires will only serve to entrench attitudes. This was certainly the case with the intervention of Jim McVeigh, the leader of the Sinn Féin group on Belfast City Council, who referred to those building bonfires as “headcases”. While there are legitimate concerns about bonfires, the Socialist Party is opposed to draconian attempts to ban them and respects the right of communities to hold such events.

Attempts to use the police and Council staff or contractors to clear bonfire sites, as Councillor McVeigh and others have pushed for in their motion at City Hall, will only worsen the situation, as we saw in the Markets and Divis areas. If the history of the Troubles has taught us anything, it is that attempts to repress events like this will not work but will only make people more determined to hold them, to make them bigger and potentially more provocative. Mr McVeigh has learned nothing from history, and has even called for the families of those young people involved in disturbances in Divis to be evicted from their homes, which would again further antagonise the situation rather than resolve the underlying problems. If the police intervene to stop bonfires in Protestant areas, where there is generally more support for the events, they will be met with sharp resistance, particularly if they are seen to do so at the behest of nationalist politicians. As one bonfire builder at Avoniel Leisure centre put it, “What are they going to do about it – take about 700 people to court?”

As Unite the Union has said, Council workers also have a right not to be “dragged into the divisive disputes over bonfires”, with all the risks to their safety that can entail. The idea that outside contractors could be used instead is no solution. All that would mean is putting the safety of another set of workers at risk, many of whom have fewer protections than Council staff, including union organisation. The fact that contractors have pulled out of this task is a reflection of the complications involved.

The left and labour movement cannot afford to ignore these questions. We must take a serious attitude to addressing contentious issues which seeks to diffuse their ability to lead to conflict on the streets and further divide working class communities. Unfortunately, that has not been the approach of People Before Profit during the controversy over recent weeks. Last year, Eamonn McCann advised, in relation to young people building a republican bonfire in the Bogside, that “we have to listen rather than denounce and demonise.” In this, he was correct. However, People Before Profit did take a denunciatory tone in the wake of this year’s Eleventh Night bonfires – patronisingly dismissed as “culture” (in inverted commas) by Councillor Matt Collins – and subsequently voted for the motion to Belfast City Council which will act to antagonise the situation in all communities involved.

Community solutions needed

Any genuine solution will have to involve and, in fact, come from within those communities in which bonfires take place. Of course, that does not mean the paramilitary organisations often connected to some of the contentious bonfires, but ordinary working class people, many of whom have genuine concerns about health and safety and the conduct of these events. A genuine coming together of people within these communities, free of paramilitary interference, can determine democratically how they are organised in a manner which minimises damage to property and the environment, as well as ensure there are no sectarian or racist provocations.

A generation left behind

It is no surprise that the bonfires that have been the focus of attention have been in some of the most deprived communities in the North. For example, the four east Belfast bonfires targeted by Council injunctions – injunctions supported by Unionist politicians, who are now trying to backtrack in the face of uproar within those communities – are in areas suffering problems of long-term unemployment. Economic inactivity is over 50% in Ballymacarett, almost 50% in Beersbridge, around 40% in Woodstock and Connswater, and around 35% in Sydenham and Bloomfield. As one bonfire builder told Stephen Nolan, “It’s a job building it (the bonfire) and it’s the only job I’ve currently got. I want to do it well.” These are areas where a strong feeling exists that Protestant working class communities are losing out at the expense of others – economically, socially and culturally. Even right-wing magazine The Spectator commented that the bonfires reflect “defiance and despair among working-class Protestants, who feel abandoned by the rest of the UK.”

We see the same thing, of course, in nationalist areas. The Divis area suffers from particularly sharp social deprivation, while west Belfast as a whole has seen an increase in the number of people that claim at least one form of benefit increasing to 49.9%. These young people, in their own way, echo the same grievances as their Protestant counterparts and are looking for a way to express their frustrations at being left behind, including by the Sinn Féin establishment in the area. If an alternative is not built, these young people will fall under the influence of the ‘dissident’ republican organisations which, despite being fractured and weak, have the basis to grow. Sinn Féin and the state intervening against their bonfires will only drive young people into the arms of the dissidents.

These communities and working class people generally were promised a “peace dividend” which simply hasn’t been delivered. The sectarian politicians – happy to implement austerity, mired in corruption with no solution when it comes to serious job creation – are fundamentally incapable of lifting these working class communities out of poverty. Bold socialist policies are necessary to provide young people with opportunities, including significant public investment to create decent jobs and apprenticeships, as well as guaranteed access to free education with a living grant.

Build an alternative to challenge sectarian division

The last two elections show an increase in sectarian polarisation which is benefiting the DUP and Sinn Féin. That process is not confined to the ballot box and will find expressions on the streets, similar to the flag protests, if it is not checked by movements that can unite ordinary people. With divisive questions like that of a border poll being pushed onto the agenda, these rising tensions – mixed up with the alienation of disenfranchised youth from society as a whole – will be expressed through phenomena like bonfires. The fact that, nearly twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, issues like bonfires, parades, flags and legacy issues are nowhere near resolved is a testament to the fundamental contradiction of the ‘peace process’ – that sectarian politicians have no interest and even less capability in overcoming the divisions in our society.

There is a need for a mass, anti-sectarian party to unite working class people in the fight for a future free from poverty, conflict and division. Movements around the world are repopularising socialist and left-wing ideas, pointing in the direction of what is necessary. Such a force could lift the sights of those working class and young people who are fed up with the sectarian, backward establishment. By uniting people in struggle for their common interests, it could break down the barriers between communities and challenge the grip of paramilitaries and sectarian politicians. Crucially, such a movement could lay the basis for genuine solutions to contentious questions by bringing people together in a spirit of solidarity, compromise and mutual respect. The building of a movement along these lines is an urgent task for socialists, trade unionists and all who want a better future.