This summer the issue of bonfires was at the centre of politics in the North, with tension increasing after it emerged that Belfast City Council effectively colluded in the storing of large amount of material for loyalist bonfires, and then some weeks later when sporadic violence flared up in Belfast after material was removed from a handful of sites at nationalist bonfires in August.
As always, it was ordinary people who suffered the most from events, with cars destroyed in the Markets area and a former credit union building burnt to the ground in West Belfast.
For establishment politicians and much of the mainstream media, the explanation for the violence essentially amounts to one of reckless young people and criminal elements that are simply condemned.
But the violence was more than just ‘anti-social behavior’. It was also a reflection of the alienation in working class and deprived communities – manifested in a destructive manner. Some of the young people who engaged in violence were as young as twelve; others grew up in the most poverty-ridden areas, which have suffered terrible violence through generations.
In this context, it was entirely inappropriate that some elected representatives called for forced evictions as a solution in the wake of the trouble, instead of looking at what support could be given to these families, and to these communities as a whole to tackle prolonged issues of low pay, mental health, and drug abuse.
Increased State repression such as forced evictions will not work. Neither will paramilitary shootings, nor any other skin deep punitive measure bandied about when this type of situation arises.
Moreover, the response from the great and the good of the political establishment was devoid of any serious recognition of the State’s role in fuelling sectarianism around bonfires. The hypocrisy of political leaders who issue hollow words of condemnation every time sectarianism flares up was hard to stomach.
The bonfire issue is the most recent example to show that the State itself is the main source of sectarianism here. Year on year among the many loyalist bonfires erected on 12 July, sectarian and racist slogans and symbols are commonplace.
Many of these bonfires flout very basic health and safety concerns, with some built dangerously close to homes and apartments (this year being erected one month after the Grenfell disaster), not to mention the obvious environmental concerns that come with the burning of tyres and other harmful substances.
By and large these bonfires are supported and funded by Belfast City Council’s bonfire programme, to the tune of thousands of pounds, in what in essence amounts to State funded sectarianism.
In July, the situation took an even worse turn when news broke that Belfast City Council had been helping to store some 3,000 pallets to be used for bonfire material. This, in all likelihood, meant that the Council was colluding with loyalist paramilitaries to store a large amount of stolen wood.
Against the build-up of State supported loyalist bonfires, we also see the erection of nationalist bonfires during the August internment anniversary. These bonfires receive no State funding or support from any major political party. At best they are void of all progressive political and historical motivation and at worst ape some of the most unsavory aspects of loyalist bonfires.
The scandal on Belfast City Council led to heated debate between councilors, yet both unionist and nationalist parties have for years bought into a sectarian carve up on the Council, allowing sectarianism to become normal and institutionalized in our society, often funded by the public purse.
The left should be clear that if the State is a primary source of sectarianism around bonfires, then it should not be relied on as the solution to the problem. We should also be alert to the danger of bonfire rules being used to enforce a particular kind of ‘community control’, where the big unionist and nationalist parties are able to decide what is an acceptable event in their areas and what isn’t.
In the special meeting of Belfast City Council that ultimately decided to remove bonfire material in August, People Before Profit proposed an amendment. I argued that any scheme to remove bonfire material should be led from the bottom up, by local communities affected by these bonfires and by trade unionists who represent workers. Any serious approach to reduce bonfires should be informed by this kind of approach. Unfortunately, my amendment was rejected, in what proved to be a serious mistake.
Socialists ought to be clear that bonfires, whether presented as culture or tradition or not, do not have an inalienable right to exist, or to be funded or facilitated by the public purse, especially if they are unwanted and foisted upon working class communities by a small minority, where they present a danger to public health or where they advance reactionary sectarian and racist ideas.
Ultimately, challenging the bonfire issue requires challenging the sectarian carve-up of politics in the North; it means challenging the State and the rotten sectarianism that it espouses, and building a political movement that can unite working people across the divide.