Burning Peace? Eleventh Night Bonfires and the Legacy of the ‘Troubles’

By Amanda Hall

Eleventh Night bonfires have been growing in controversy in recent years: reaching new heights, gaining new imagery, and intensifying the disconnect between loyalist communities and the state – especially between services such as the fire brigade and the police. This year’s bonfires, roaring back after they were largely curtailed by the pandemic in 2020, are proving to be no exception. In April, against the backdrop of over a week of violence in response to policing decisions regarding Bobby Storey’s funeral, loyalist communities across Northern Ireland, including those in Moygashel, Ballykeel, and Avoniel released statements (typically via Facebook) stating that they would refuse to co-operate with the policing of their July bonfires. As one loyalist succinctly put it: “P. S. N. I. R. A. OUT!!!” Recent weeks have seen even formal institutions express their unwillingness to engage with the police: the DUP in Derry and Strabane Council withdrew their support for bonfire policing over the decision by the Council not to formally mark the centenary of partition, and thus the birth of Northern Ireland, in June. All of this, combined with growing concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol and claims by the Loyalist Communities Council that they no longer support the Good Friday Agreement, demonstrates that this year’s bonfires may be inflammatory in more ways than one.

But why is this coming to a head now? What is the significance, moreover, of the current situation for those researching the ‘Troubles’?

This escalation of tensions and the use of bonfires as a release mechanism for seemingly unrelated concerns is not a new development. Rather, it can be traced back to the waning of the ‘Troubles’. As ‘peace’ was formally negotiated, a space opened up for commemoration to be weaponised in new ways – both as a means of exerting control over a community, and as a way to express that community’s identity and belonging. This has been particularly well-studied with regard to the use of parades, particularly those at Drumcree. While parades have been mired in respectability politics for centuries, bonfires have not been subject to similar debates. Beginning in the 1990s, the Orange Order – which has striven to ensure that the Twelfth is respectable – has gone so far as to distance itself from bonfires.[1]

As a result, loyalists now control bonfires, as evidenced by the perceived legitimacy of the April declarations. The years since the early 1990s have seen bonfires become increasingly professional and resource-heavy. No longer a pile of scrap wood as they may have been in the 1970s, built on street corners by young people from the neighbourhood, today ‘monster bonfires’ can use thousands of pallets, necessitating the use of cranes to create structures which dwarf nearby buildings. They have also increasingly been used to signal the state of community relations: one thinks of the burning of Irish tri-colour flags; of signs reading ‘K. A. I.’ (‘Kill All Irish’); of campaign posters of nationalist politicians.

It would appear that the state has become less and less influential as the physical and symbolic strength of bonfires has grown: this year, a bonfire in Newtownards has been built without permission within sight of the fire station, promoting concerns that the station may need to cover its windows to prevent damage. Previous years have seen the fire brigade run public information campaigns reminding those celebrating that those employed to control blazes are not ‘out to ruin the fun,’ while efforts to intervene have seen the fire service attacked by revellers. Residents have been moved out of their homes and forced to board up windows to protect their property in response to nearby structures. Yet efforts to remove bonfires before they are lit out of concerns for safety and the environment are decried by the local community.

So over the course of the supposed ‘post-Troubles’ period, bonfires have become a particularly sensitive cultural vehicle, used to express Unionist and loyalist fears that they are under heightened scrutiny in Northern Ireland or are otherwise being treated unfairly. It can be argued that recent months have highlighted how fragile the peace established in 1998 remains today; a resurgence in loyalist violence around Eleventh Night could quickly have an impact at other points in the calendar. Crucially, concerns expressed through these bonfires – such as those voiced this year about unequal policing and the Northern Ireland Protocol – will not disappear after the smoke clears.

While ‘monster’ bonfires are the exception, not the rule, by looking at how the most overtly political and controversial bonfires have changed over time we can, I believe, better understand the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ and the extent to which the endurance of the Good Friday Agreement since 1998 would seem to have masked a growing instability within society.

The increasing size, professionalisation, politicisation, and danger of some bonfires are signs that the practice of Eleventh Night has changed since the end of the ‘Troubles’. The role of these bonfires has changed as well – no longer small, community-focused events, these bonfires are now a way to signal the strength of a community in response to a perceived threat. This evolution has the potential to cloud our understanding of the ‘Troubles’ and their aftermath, making it important to consider how we think about bonfires today and the way that frames our understanding of such cultural displays during the ‘Troubles’ themselves. Importantly, bonfires, like parades, were not regular sources of tension during the ‘Troubles,’ yet they have become weaponised in the years since. Bonfires are now an outlet for grievances and concerns that had previously been expressed by loyalists through direct violence. The practice of ‘traditional’ commemoration, as well as memories themselves, can also change over time – developing multiple layers of meaning that we must unpick if we are to fully understand the totality of the ‘Troubles’ and their legacy. As we study the conflict, we must consider that the past is not a foreign country – the evolution and salience of bonfires through the years continue to shape understandings of culture, identity, and belonging.[2]

All this provides those of us researching the ‘Troubles’ with a stark reminder that the period is not yet history – the ‘Troubles’ are, in a way, still evolving through this pattern whereby communities and organisations find new outlets for venting old grievances, a process compounded by the on-going culture war that grips Northern Ireland. This is itself not a new argument: D. A. Whitcombe reflected upon the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ in Larne for Writing the Troubles one year ago – highlighting that the height of violence there came during 2000-2001, including the shooting of Andrew Cairns by his fellow loyalists during a bonfire in July 2000. Reporting on Cairns’ death, newspapers noted that bonfires had been particularly contentious that year; used to demonstrate growing loyalist frustration with the peace process – a frustration that also generated feuds within loyalism itself.

As of the time of writing, it is too early to tell what 2021’s Eleventh Night will look like, and what its long-term impact may be. When this post is published, it is likely that bonfires will still be smouldering in some parts of Northern Ireland. What is clear, however, is that this evolving situation bears consideration not only for what it represents today, but for the weight of history and the threat to the future that is expressed through bonfires and their organisation. As recent events have demonstrated, Eleventh Night remains a crucial pressure valve for the loyalist community in Northern Ireland, one through which they can express their identity, beliefs, and opinions. In a way, then, bonfires provide beacons; well-lit reference points that can help to guide our researches into, and understanding of, the potential for any further inflammation of tensions.

(Image: Ballycraigy Bonfire © Shane Killen (cc-by-sa/2.0) geograph.org.uk/p/491803)

Dr Amanda Hall recently completed her PhD at the University of St Andrews, in affiliation with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Her work considers the relationship between peace and violence in Northern Ireland following the ‘Troubles,’ with a particular focus on the inter-referendum period of 1998-2016. She tweets @amandalhall.

[1] Linen Hall Library, Divided Society Political Collection, ORA2_077_006, ‘Eleventh Night Bonfires’, The Orange Standard (Feb. 1997).

[2] See David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country Revisited (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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