Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why there are no winners when both communities try to fight fire with fire

Republicans burning poppies is particularly offensive to unionists given the sacrifice of those who died in two World Wars, says Eilis O'Hanlon

In Fahrenheit 451, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury imagined a future America in which firemen, far from putting out flames, were ordered instead to start them.

On the very first page the author describes the delight of the main character, Guy, as he points his flamethrower at a house filled with forbidden books that are deemed to threaten the ruling regime (the title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites).

"It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed," he says.

He describes lovingly how they burn the books to ashes and then burn the ashes as well. Just to be sure.

Of course, Guy changes his point of view in the course of the story, but if the fireman was from Northern Ireland he'd never have realised the error of his ways.

Setting fires here is not so much a way of life in some communities as a bounden duty, so it's not exactly surprising to hear that two poppy wreaths were burned on a bonfire in Derry's Bogside this week after being stolen from the War Memorial in the Diamond.

They joined a host of other offerings which were also consigned to the flames, including Union flags, and UDA and Parachute Regiment paraphernalia - and "offerings" is the right word.

They were totems, offered up to appease the god of fire. DUP councillor Graham Warke called it "a total disgrace" - and he's right.

But to criticise what happened inevitably raises the familiar spectre of whataboutery.

What about the election posters that loyalists burn on Eleventh Night bonfires? What about the tricolours? What about the effigies of the Pope?

More troublingly, what about the racist banner about a Celtic striker which was incinerated on a bonfire in Belfast during this year's Twelfth? What about the black coffin bearing the face of the Martin McGuinness which was torched in Castlereagh, only a few months after the former Deputy First Minister's death?

McGuinness did many questionable things in his life and his legacy should be open to fierce and passionate criticism. Turning his coffin into a plaything to be scorched in front of jeering crowds is not, however, part of any serious debate about the Troubles. It's pandering to a rowdy mob's worst instincts.

Many unionists roundly condemned those sectarian gestures, including DUP leader Arlene Foster. Others were more ambivalent, engaging in the old local game of "yes, but" (yes, it's regrettable, but...).

Burning things which matter to the other side is hardly the exclusive preserve of one community, or another; but it's undeniable that the Twelfth rarely passes without some controversy over effigies on the flames. The pyres grow bigger and bigger, threatening surrounding buildings, and those who are uncomfortable with the spectacle keep their mouths shut out of fear.

It would be miraculous if republicans didn't follow suit when their own firemen set to work.

Burning poppy wreaths is a particularly "vile act", as the councillor said.

Flags and political emblems don't matter so much, but poppies have a particular significance as remembrances of the dead of two World Wars.

To burn them is an especially egregious insult to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of young men who were marched to their deaths in the most vicious war the world had seen up to that point, many of whom were Irish.

It's impossible to visit the First World War battlefields in France and Belgium without being riven with sadness and compassion for those who fell there, pawns in a power game between two great empires.

They were victims. How does denigrating their memory help the republican cause? The one consolation is that the people who did it probably don't even know what poppies stand for. They just see them as unionist symbols, to be automatically hated as a result.

That's Northern Ireland's tragedy. At the extremes, each tribe relates everything back to its own hurts. The bigger picture is lost.

The problem is not what goes on to bonfires. It's the bonfires themselves. Even Bonfire Night in England has its troubling aspects, as effigies of the Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes are burned to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder plot.

Northern Ireland knows better than any place the dangers of remembering too much and forgetting too little. What was it Jesus said? "Let the dead bury the dead."

Moving forward is impossible without leaving some things behind, no matter how much fun it might be to wallow in ancient grievances or gloating.

Of course, Bonfire Night in England has become a much more anodyne occasion as the centuries have passed since Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered for his crime; but familiarity merely dulls the peculiarity of it - that in an apparently sophisticated and civilised world, people still ritualistically burn effigies of former political enemies.

That's weird, however you look at it. It's like something from The Wicker Man, not modern Britain, but it's accepted without question because it's traditional.

Northern Ireland hasn't enjoyed a sufficient period of peace for our bonfires to become quaint bits of folklore, rather than acts of sectarian defiance. Perhaps one day we can have more innocent bonfires, too.

That day, sadly, is still a long way off. Until then, things will get thrown on the flames that offend one side or the other. Politicians on this side will issue outraged condemnations and politicians on the other defensively pretend not to understand what the fuss is about.

Passing off the bonfires in either community as expressions of culture is an insult to Ulster Protestant and Irish nationalist traditions alike.

Culture should be about exploring new ideas and identities, not triumphalistically glorying in a stubborn refusal to give respect to other people.

That's why bonfires are, literally, playing with fire. They provoke a kind of quasi-religious ecstasy. Fire is primeval. It appeals to some of man's baser instincts, the ones he'd rather not admit that he had.

Bonfires stir the blood, so it's inevitable that things which would seem reprehensible when the ashes are cold seem exciting and glorious when the flames are roaring. Like stealing poppies to throw on the flames.

Whoever did that should read Fahrenheit 451 - if they're capable of reading anything with more nuance and subtlety than an IRA slogan on a gable wall. They might learn something. Guy did.

He realised that fire is destructive by its nature, and that creating and saving is ultimately better than destroying.

What a crazy, muddle-headed, hippie notion. But who knows, it might just work.

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