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Politicians ignore the disaffected at our peril

Published 08/03/2016

Chobham Street bonfire in east Belfast last year was so big, nearby houses had to be boarded-up to protect them
Chobham Street bonfire in east Belfast last year was so big, nearby houses had to be boarded-up to protect them
Construction work on a memorial for the 1916 Easter Rising in Lurgantarry, Lurgan

Whether it's a massive republican memorial or a towering loyalist bonfire, mainstream parties are suspiciously silent about these giant structures which spring up from nowhere. They could do worse than listen to the very people who are most directly impacted by them, writes Alex Kane.

In early July 2014 I was standing with an American journalist in east Belfast looking at a tower of pallets. What struck him most were the Tricolours, election posters of supposed enemies and other assorted knickknacks waiting to be torched.

"None of these are any threat to loyalists in this area, so why do they feel the need to burn them in the name of their own culture? This is, quite literally, a bonfire of the inanities," he said.

He was right. This particular bonfire was a bizarre, almost inexplicable form of triumphalism. It wasn't about a celebration of their own achievements or success or stability or confidence in the future. It was a few cheap shots at others whom they perceive to be doing better than them.

And that's why they're deaf to all pleas to make the bonfires smaller, safer, more environmentally friendly and less explicitly hostile to "outsiders". These bonfires (and it doesn't apply to every other bonfire across Northern Ireland, let alone every one in Belfast) are, in fact, a defiant "we-won't-be-forgotten" message rather than a celebration of collective values.

Significantly, the message is directed just as much towards mainstream unionism as it is to republicans, nationalists, the IRA and even Alliance; and that's because many of the young loyalists who do the building, guarding and lighting of the fires - and many of the thousands who come out to watch them on the Eleventh Night - believe they have been left behind by history and by recent events.

There is clear evidence that "community workers", cross-community organisations, the PUP and some elements of the DUP and UUP have tried to reach them, but little electoral evidence that they're listening.

Yet, given the nature of politics here (although, to be honest, the rule applies everywhere), it tends to be the small-scale stuff that attracts the most media and social media attention.

So, no matter how much the defenders of the July 11th and 12th "traditions" insist that the so-called loyalist bonfires are only a very small part of the overall picture, it is those bonfires which dominate the political and media agenda for months on end. Hardly surprising, when the first bonfires are already under preparation in some places.

But this sense of being left behind isn't just restricted to a handful of loyalist communities in Belfast. In Lurgantarry, Lurgan, Republican Sinn Fein is funding a "huge project to erect a memorial garden as a fitting tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of Irish freedom over the past 100 years".

Just like the loyalist bonfires, though, this garden is not going to make a button of difference to the everyday lives of the people on the estate.

It won't improve educational standards or prospects of employment; it's just their own version of the "we-won't-be-forgotten" message. And, like the bonfires, it's also directed just as much at a Sinn Fein and SDLP mainstream, which they believe has left them behind.

You won't hear much criticism from those two parties about this garden, and nor will you hear much from the UUP, DUP, TUV, or Ukip about the bonfires. They tend to leave well enough alone when it comes to their "own" side. Not surprisingly, of course, unionists have been very vocal about Lurgantarry, with DUP councillor Carol Lockhart saying: "As Northern Ireland moves forward, we should not be romanticising violence of yesteryear. This incident makes the case for new legislation to enhance and strengthen anti-terrorism and anti-glorification of terrorism laws. Its size will make it a dominating feature of the area and its placement beside a school is deeply concerning."

She added: "I have no doubt it will also be used to muster support for dissident republicans, who still engage in terrorism today. I will be writing to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking what he believes constitutes glorification of terrorism in Northern Ireland."

Sinn Fein and SDLP spokespeople tend to use a similar sort of language when it comes to the loyalist bonfires, claiming that they promote sectarianism and fear, and could encourage young people to get involved on the fringes of paramilitarism.

Yet the fact that the mainstream parties in the two big community blocs are still reluctant - or only do so in very muted, nuanced language - to step in and criticise some elements of what is happening on their own fringes, suggests electoral caution.

Eleventh Night bonfires are part and parcel of life in Northern Ireland and have been for a very long time.

They will continue to be part and parcel of life. That said, I think it's essential that they are never used in a way that could be described as intimidatory - either physically (almost on top of houses) or politically. They should be genuinely social/cultural/historical events and welcoming to tourists and people from other communities.

But that sort of change is going to require a concerted effort by mainstream unionists to ensure that loyalists don't feel left behind - which means tackling the very real socio/economic/educational problems which blight them, rather than just patronising them with cliché and aloofness.

The same applies to places like Lurgantarry. Why do they feel isolated and abandoned? Why do they feel that the new political structures have nothing to offer them? Indeed, why can't the residents in places like loyalist east Belfast and republican Lurgantarry actually realise that they have so much in common when it comes to feelings of abandonment and deprivation? There's a real challenge for the mainstream parties to tackle.

If they want Northern Ireland to change then they need to prove that a good school and a good job always trumps a bigger bonfire and a memorial garden.

The most difficult conversations in a society that is trying to move from conflict to post-conflict are not, surprisingly enough, those between formerly warring opponents. They are, instead, the internal conversations; the conversations with those on your own side - many of them victims and many more who lived in the most targeted areas - who feel that they're not on the winning side.

History proves that you cannot simply leave them behind; because there will come a time - and it always does come - when their growing resentment and isolation will trigger another cycle of political/social instability.

Sinn Fein complaining about aspects of "loyalist culture", while unionists complain about "republican glorification" achieves absolutely nothing. The underlying problems and causes are not being tackled.

Ask, instead, why some loyalists need a particular type of bonfire and why some republicans need a particular type of memorial.

And instead of relying on "community spokesmen" for the answers, maybe the Executive should fund some door-to-door polling and research.

Because the people behind those doors deserve to have their views accurately recorded and represented for once.

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