By Benjamin Marshall
The violent outset of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s has taken a religiously and culturally divided society and added an element of extremism, terrorism, segregation, and sectarianism. Both sides have flown their own flags, literally and figuratively with pro-paramilitary songs and parades, car-bombings, targeted shootings, and constant threats of continuing all of the above. While the worst part of the violence subsided at the turn of the 21st century, two of the most notorious aspects of sectarianism in the region have maintained their intensity – the loyalist bonfires and paramilitary-sponsored murals. Though only a snapshot of the wider issues facing Northern Ireland, these two aspects of society, particularly in Belfast, are worthy of inquiry. The recent discontent and renewed tensions brought about by Brexit have unionist and loyalists in Northern Ireland constantly viewing their futures with the aura of Irish reunification being a consistent presence. While a mass outpour of violence has not occurred, Loyalism in Belfast is displayed primarily through the bonfires and murals still. All photos in this article were taken by myself unless stated otherwise.
The term ‘siege mentality’ has often been used to describe the feelings of angst and tension among the unionist and loyalist communities – typically Protestant, identifying as British, and ardently anti-Irish Republicanism in nature – in Northern Ireland. Upon speaking to individuals in those communities, it was difficult for me, as someone who holds no strong political feelings for either the republican or unionist sides to sympathize. Yet it is easy to understand why those feelings are pronounced in such a striking, visual manner in Belfast. In the eyes of many in areas of the city such as the Newtownards Road, Sandy Row, the Village and the Shankill, it is generally believed that they have truly been forgotten by the powers-that-be. No one trusts Westminster, no one trusts Dublin, and no one trusts Brussels. “No Surrender” is most commonly heard throughout the 11th and 12th of July, the days when the ugliest aspects of Loyalism rear their heads. The annual celebrations on the 12th of July are done by Northern Ireland’s unionist communities to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, in which the protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James in modern-day County Meath, north of Dublin. This victory solidified Protestant, and British, rule on the island until the 1920s. In Northern Ireland, and especially in Belfast, the day is marked by parades and marches by members of the Orange Orders throughout the region (Protestant fraternal organizations) he Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which put an end to the arms race between the republican and loyalist terrorist groups brought a temporary respite to Northern Ireland’s residents However the turmoil brought about by Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol have once again given rise to tension among the increasingly disaffected loyalist community leaders and population as a whole.
Fig 1. A mural sponsored by a Loyalist paramilitary group on Upper Newtownards Road, East Belfast.
Stacks of pallets, reaching as high as 50 feet in some communities, are the annual scorn of any onlooker outside the yoke of hardline Loyalism. Adorned with flags and imagery, ranging from flags such as that of the European Union, ISIS, and the Republic of Ireland’s tricolour, ‘Bonfire Night’, July 11th, is the yearly culmination of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland’s love of being forgotten. The usage of bonfires with regards to the night of July 11th were not notable, nor even traditional until the establishment of Northern Ireland as separate from the southern Republic in 1921. It was around this time that William of Orange became seen a champion for Ulster Protestantism, and bonfires became a show of strength for the Orange Order and unionists in the north as a whole.
Bonfires across the island are a tradition going back to pre-Christian periods, used for reasons ranging from celebratory to warning beacons. Even during the days of the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, there was little to no discontent or fuss about the night of the 11th. By 1970, however, bonfires became a marker of defiance to the civil rights campaign by Catholics in Northern Ireland, who were largely underrepresented in government office and the police forces, as well as being victims of gerrymandering and coincided with the onset of the worst years of the Troubles – and bonfires began to include the burning of pallet stacks and tires. At some bonfires, loyalist paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who were usually in charge of larger bonfire operations regardless, would make an appearance and fire shots into the air as a showing of strength and defiance. As a result, there is little which gets in the way of making a connection between the bonfires and hardline loyalism. The history of the bonfire in the historic province of Ulster (which all the counties in Northern Ireland belong to), combined with increasingly divided communities and the always celebrated evening of 11 July, has led to the spectacle that we see today.
Fig. 2: Residents of the Sandy Row neighbourhood prepare materials for a bonfire (photo by Bill Kirk, 1972)
“…the biggest majority, I would say 90 per cent of this community still want bonfires in their area. So, I [don’t know] how you would deal with this long term” is what a youth worker told PhD candidate Anna Poloni. Constant political stagnation in Northern Ireland’s parliament, and in the United Kingdom as a whole, has left an ever-looming shadow of Brexit and the subsequent Northern Ireland Protocol over the island. Gains which have been made, even at a local level, have been squandered by the continual squabbling between Belfast and London, directed at Brussels, have led to a one step forwards, two steps back scenario. The future of the bonfire symbolism remains up in the air.
Bureaucracy and Communal Management
The extremely complex relationship between the Northern Ireland state, police and security forces, and hardline loyalists is exacerbated by interventions with bonfire organisers. One example of this is during the height of the Troubles in 1986, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (police) showed up to remove bonfire materials in advance in bonfire-setup locations in South, East and West Belfast. The police stated that concerns of safety and the potential for property damage were their reasons for the use of force. Loyalists were furious. This situation illustrates how Loyalist leaders are likely to interpret any actions by state actors against them as an insult against their demonstrating of their core identity.
Belfast City Council is mired in proposals, requests, denials, and accusations of creating rising tensions on an annual basis. In 2021, a proposal brought forward by Sinn Fein and backed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, respectively, proposed to implement regulations in which those wishing to build and operate bonfires would henceforth require a thorough application. This proposal was strongly opposed by Alderman Brian Kingston, DUP a council leader for the Democratic Unionist Party, who branded it as “totally unrealistic.” Alliance Party councillor Nuala McAllister suggested that while she believes that bonfires should be regulated, the suggested proposals were not up to par with the council’s good community relations guidelines. Like other councils, Belfast City Council offers up to £1,750 in funding for bonfires that meet specific criteria including not burning tires and avoiding paramilitary or offensive displays.
For example, in 2022, Ards & North Down Borough Council, the governing body of County Down in Northern Ireland saw a survey in 2022 with relatively few responses (145 in total). Many respondents were largely critical of the bonfires as a “source of division” and deemed 11 July as being nothing more than a haven for “drunks and druggies”. Ards & North Down Borough Councillor Tom Smith heavily criticized the survey as being misrepresentative of the community as whole. Yet the Council’s 2021 Cultural Expression Agreement did not reference such problems that may arise from the July 11 festivities.The fact that there were so few responses to the original survey regarding negative connotations of the bonfires unfortunately shows the lack of willingness in certain loyalist communities to change its imagery.
In comparison, the Borough Council of Causeway Coast & Glens does have a bonfire framework report which acknowledges the “adverse effect” of anti-social behaviour associated with the July 1 bonfires, but, just as in other councils’ policies, they call on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to ‘reduce’ paramilitary and inappropriate displays of flags and effigies.
Derry City & Strabane District Council has seen more progress than others in reducing sectarian imagery on bonfires – or at least in writing. Controversy was rampant in 2021 when a bonfire was set up on Lecky Road near the Catholic-populated Bogside neighbourhood. In 2022, unionist politicians have been irate with the continuing decision by bonfire organisers to use tires along with palates. The tire issue, deemed environmentally unfriendly and largely pointless, has been categorically ignored by the organizers of the bonfires. This has led to a boycott by the DUP of the council’s bonfire programme.
While the Bonfires make only a one-time appearance per year, the infamous murals which can be found throughout the city are a constant. Murals are not specific to loyalist areas: both loyalist and nationalist/republican areas feature them prominently. Yet there is a noticeable trend, especially in Belfast, of murals in predominantly Irish-nationalist areas, such as the Falls Road and the Short Strand, that, rather than promoting violent discourse, commemorate Irish cultural aspects as well as the memory of the dead. Loyalist murals, on the other hand, feature a strikingly high amount of the former. Below is a number of murals which can be found on the predominantly Loyalist Upper Newtownards Road in East Belfast, Broadway Street in The Village, and on the Donegall Pass.
Fig 3. Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast (23 August 2022)
Fig. 4 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast (23 August 2022)
Fig 5. Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast (23 August 2022)
Fig 6. Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast (23 August 2022)
Fig 7. Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast (23 August 2022)
Fig 8. Donegal Pass, Belfast (3 June 2022)
Fig 9. Broadway & Tavanagh Street, Belfast (29 May 2022)
Fig 10. Ballarat Street, Belfast (11 July 2022)
Fig 11. Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast (23 August, 2022)
This is not to say that Loyalist murals are all doom and gloom. Recent attempts by community organizations not affiliated with paramilitaries have added a more peaceful array of imagery to the area. Indeed, while murals such as the monument to Belfast cultural icons George Best and Van Morrison stand as a representation of community and civil spirit, it can be alarming to view something so positive, while not even a minute’s walk down the road shows that there is still need for a significant amount of re-imaging work that needs to be done. Moreover, it is far from clear what the plans are for the rest of the refurbished, and formerly infamous Freedom Corner on the Upper Newtowards Road in East Belfast, nor are there any rumblings that further re-imaging of paramilitary-inspired murals will be occurring any time within the near future. Reshaping murals on the Upper Newtownards Road is evidently not something that can be done overnight. Though the former Ulster Freedom Fighters (a highly illegal paramilitary outfit) murals on Freedom Corner were erased suddenly overnight, they ended up being replaced by UDA murals ironically resembling some of the artwork on the Free Derry Corner. The Ballymacarrett Somme Society also oversaw the painting-over of a former Red Hand Commando mural in 2016, but there still remains anywhere between six to seven murals or banners dedicated to paramilitaries between the Titanic Mural in the west, and the George Best/Van Morrison mural in the eastern segment of the Upper Newtownards.
Modern-day loyalism, a microcosm of decades-long issues in Northern Ireland, is continuously a culture of finger-pointing, fear, nostalgia, and the ever-present siege mentality. The blame goes back and forth between London elites who show no interest in the most pro-British population in all of the United Kingdom, and the “inherently racist ideology” of Irish Republicanism, as one prominent Belfast loyalist said to me in an interview (Neale 2022). The end of sectarianism is unforeseeable, regardless of which country Northern Ireland ends up belonging to in the near future. An array of Sinn Fein voters at a Féile an phoBail (Irish cultural festival) conference in the Falls Road nearly unanimously agreed that an overnight reunification immediately solving sectarian problems is nothing more than wishful thinking, and borderline criminal naivety. While it is impossible to compare the Northern Ireland of today to what it was in the 1970s, the path to removing the old mindsets of hatred and inter-communal tension which was brought to a head once more due to Brexit, is still dominates political discourse in the region.
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