Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Eleventh night bonfires: Let's not fan the flames of hate

Lanark Way bonfire in west Belfas
Lanark Way bonfire in west Belfast

The huge bonfires going up around Northern Ireland do more than merely light up the Eleventh night. They also inflame community tensions through the practice of burning nationalist flags and effigies. Calls to abandon the practice largely fall on deaf ears. The undeniable logic that you cannot defend or celebrate one's own culture by denigrating or abusing another's finds no sympathy in many cases.

The end result, along with the saturation of mixed areas – even where these include traditional routes of parades – with more and bigger flags, is to ratchet up tension at an already volatile time of the year.

The flying of a KKK flag in east Belfast, an area where there have been several outrageous racist incidents, was particularly imbecilic. The one encouraging factor was that that flag was quickly removed after local discussions and those responsible for its erection were roundly condemned across the political spectrum.

In recent times there have been concerted efforts to clean up the Eleventh night bonfires, with community groups taking control of the building and more discussion with local councils over the siting of the bonfires and their content. However change, as ever in Northern Ireland, is glacially slow and the issue of flags, emblems and parades has still to be properly addressed by politicians.

As the report published earlier this week demonstrates, unionist or Orange culture, far from being under threat, is flourishing, with the number of parades in recent years greatly increased. Rather than feeling threatened, the Orange Order and its supporters should now have the confidence to initiate change and to enter into discussions on how to eradicate the more undesirable elements surrounding parades and flag-flying.

There is an urgent need to draw up a protocol for bonfires, flag-flying and parades which allow those of the unionist and Orange traditions to celebrate without antagonising.

That will involve compromise as well from those representing the nationalist tradition, but this is not about winners and losers, rather about how everyone can tolerate each other's culture.

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