Is civility flagging? Whatever grievances may lie behind the turbulence evident in the actions of groups and individuals at sites of contentious bonfires, they cannot justify the indulgent and hostile defiance of environmental good sense or the collateral social, political and financial fallout.
If it is some form of strategy in a perceived ‘culture war’ its proponents need to realise soon that unionist, in this case localised loyalist, culture is not being attacked so much as being demonised and killed off by those who claim to be its most loyal defenders.
Hardening the boundaries to encourage a sense of siege around a narrow cultural terrain that visits victimisation upon itself to produce a defensive and closed mentality is neither positive or reflective of broader and civic-minded unionism which breathes through different cultures and not narrow pre-supposed identities and unexamined assertions.
Bonfires and flags are becoming the litmus test for those who want to remain in a flawed comfort zone of entrenched base support which feeds the caricature promoted by its political opposition and the larger and growing number who recognise that unionist culture can embrace its shared and intermingled Irish, Anglo-Irish and Ulster Scots heritage beyond flags, bonfires and marching bands which have a place but cannot fill its totality.
It does not have to be this way but civility seems to be flagging and not just in regard to ‘soldier F’. Unionism needs to pause and encourage bonfire-builders to act differently before they alienate the community, including many unionists, further.
Bonfires are a celebratory feature of life in many countries like India, Canada, Australia and the United States where they mark significant events and festivals such as Commonwealth Day, the Winter solstice and Saint-Jean Baptiste Day in Québec.
They do not produce the controversy that results in NI from bonfires, across the community at different times, where election posters and flags are burned along with materials which cause environmental damage close to homes, public buildings and roads. Better sense needs to prevail especially where public money is being made available to provide materials which literally go up in smoke.
In the case of unionism, many of the bonfires are timed to mark events in which the Loyal Orders and other loyalist organisations have a leading role. It is clear that they are being increasingly embarrassed by the negativity and intransigence on display but is it beyond the capacity of these organisations to encourage a protocol reflective of intelligent order and sound environmental good practice within communities?
On an individual basis some members, in concert with community and cultural organisations, are acting to encourage alternatives to bonfires and using beacons which are safer and more environmentally friendly. Family festivals and Fun days are proving a success in some areas but they tend to be single-identity, funded from the public purse and are in effect about encouraging more positive cultural expression. They are in essence an indication of the cultural faultline that runs through the triumphalist mindset of some communities
The Loyal Orders ought to provide more of a lead in addressing the problems.
Indeed, they could go further to reduce the number of bonfires by organising them in suitable locations where those attending are entertained by music, food and suitable beverages are available for purchase and the occasion adheres to a civic code of practice to become the traditional celebratory and social attraction that it used to be.
Acting in this way to remove those unattractive features which increasingly discourage many from associating themselves with the activities can only be helpful in ways that Drumcree and Twaddell were not, albeit that they did not enjoy the endorsement of everyone in the Loyal Orders.
The dangers of placing your celebration at the disposal of decision-makers in an emotionally charged atmosphere should be learned.
Politicians closest to them could adopt a more positive stance instead of skirting around the issues to limit damage and call it as it is.
Burning flags and election posters is intimidatory, sectarian and degrading to all. Bonfires which necessitate the Fire Service on standby and threaten damage to buildings and the environment are not acceptable in this day and age. Public representatives need to abandon their subordination to old allegiances and lead their constituency back to a more civil and moral anchorage. Common sense ought to break out.
When doing so they can work to widen the understanding within unionism as to what is meant by unionist culture. Limited appreciation of this may be part of the problem.
When discussing the acceptability of an Irish Language Act unionist politicians have argued that this should be contained within a wider Cultural Act but appear at a loss in going beyond Orange and Ulster-Scots traditions to offer a definition of unionist culture.
Apart from the fact that there is no requirement for a trade-off in that Gaelic is a characteristic and enriching feature of British cultural hybridity in NI, unionism seems limited in its own understanding of British unionist culture. Too accepting of unfavourable stereotyping, it fails to locate beyond narrow political and communal categorisation and disentangle itself from power struggles over manufactured issues of language, bonfires and flags.
For too long unionism has neglected writers, poets and artists who have challenged political and social orthodoxy and as a result has distanced itself from those Irish and Anglo-Irish elements of Northern Ireland’s culture that were once celebrated and promoted by unionism. As a result, it has conformed to its characterisation as Protestant and sectarian. This is reinforced when organisations which purport to celebrate past battles for freedom and liberty now promote narrow social conservatism and exclusivity in worship.
When mixed with political fear mongering, is it any wonder that one result is the combustible behaviour pertaining to some bonfires?
It is a challenging question but hope for better lies in addressing it