Why is it okay to burn effigies on Bonfire Night, but on Eleventh Night it’s classed as hate crime?
Double standard between Guy Fawkes pyres and the traditional Ulster ‘boney’ is deplorable, says Nelson McCausland
Last Sunday was November 5, the anniversary of “gunpowder, treason and plot”. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up the King and Parliament on November 5, 1605, but thankfully their plot failed. The gunpowder was discovered, the conspirators were arrested and it is that event which is commemorated on Bonfire Night.
Of course, November 5 is also the anniversary of the landing of William Prince of Orange in England in 1688 and the start of the Glorious Revolution.
It was interesting, therefore, to see the date marked across Great Britain with thousands of community bonfires and fireworks displays.
The little town of Lewes in Sussex has a very strong bonfire tradition and each of the six bonfire societies in Lewes organises its own one.
Held on the Saturday night this year, they attracted around 60,000 spectators. Bonfire Night in Lewes is now so popular that the organisers have had to make it all-ticket.
The tickets are free, but it is a way of controlling the numbers in a small town.
Newspapers, radio and television carried many reports about Bonfire Night, and several things struck me about them.
I was impressed by how well-organised most of the bonfires are. Many of them are organised by constituted bonfire societies and some of these have their own website, Facebook page, Twitter account and commercial sponsorship. One was actually co-sponsored by Waitrose.
I was also impressed by the nature of the media coverage, which presented a picture of popular and enjoyable community celebrations.
The bonfires were simply part of the annual programme of civic events and Bonfire Night was one element of British folk culture. Bonfires in Great Britain are viewed as traditional, enjoyable and normal.
Yes, it is a busy night for the Fire Service and there were some reports of damage to property, as well as some anti-social behaviour.
But this was always reported in context and there was no attempt to whip up a frenzied demand for Bonfire Night to be curtailed.
A common feature of Bonfire Night and a long-standing tradition is the burning of effigies, much in the same way as Lundy is burned by the Apprentice Boys of Derry.
However, in more recent years the effigies on some English bonfires have been those of contemporary figures, rather than just effigies from the past.
In the village of Edenbridge in Kent they burned an effigy of Harvey Weinstein, but many others chose political figures, ranging from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.
All this was reported with barely a word of criticism and, indeed, the political effigies received a lot of positive coverage.
Freelance journalist Jamie Milton, who writes for The Guardian and The Independent, blogged enthusiastically about the opportunity to burn effigies of “hate figures”.
However, here in Northern Ireland the burning of Sinn Fein election posters on some Eleventh Night bonfires was described by the party’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill as “hate crime”, with some of her colleagues making complaints to the PSNI and demanding investigations.
So, what is the difference between burning a poster in Northern Ireland and burning a 20ft effigy in England?
Could it be that some politicians in Northern Ireland spend too much time cultivating the image of the “Most Offended People Ever”. We have our cultural traditions in Ulster and some of these are around parades, bonfires and historical murals.
Indeed, during the Festival of Britain in 1951 the poet John Hewitt described Orange murals as Ulster’s “only expression of folk art”.
Unfortunately, there are those who want to eradicate those traditions and one argument they often make is that our folk traditions are primitive, primeval and out of step with modern Britain.
Bonfire Night was a timely reminder of just how spurious that argument is — and long may it continue.
Oh, and perhaps we could look at bringing November 5 back into our calendar of events here in Ulster.