“It’s the case of making sure that those we represent also feel valued in Northern Ireland – what we can’t see is one section of the community having cultural supremacy over the other members of the community of which they live. What we wanted to see happen is that everyone is respected and that there would be mutual respect across Northern Ireland, and that it is regrettable that Sinn Féin won’t enter into that sort of dialogue.” – Arlene Foster, Leader of the DUP following the breakdown of power sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly
Like many other of thousands of people who’ve probably heard this statement from Arlene Foster my mouth literally dropped open. The sheer cheek of her to accuse a community, of which for decades has been oppressed politically, socially and culturally, of seeking ‘cultural supremacy’ over another is just gob-smackingly hypocritical.
As many of my readers know I live abroad in Brussels, Belgium and have been doing so for the last five years. I often try to get home to Belfast 3-4 times a year, usually for a week each time because even though I love my life in the EU capital there is just no place like home. However, I usually try to avoid going home in the month of July – predominantly for one reason – The Twelfth.
For those who are not familiar with what the 12th July is and what it represents, it is essentially the biggest day in the year, along with the 11th July bonfires for the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community in Northern Ireland. It celebrates the victory of the Protestant king William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. On the Twelfth and throughout the month of July, parades are held by the Orange Order and Loyalist marching bands, streets are bedecked with British flags, colouring and symbols, and large bonfires which tower over houses are built to be lit on the night of the Eleventh.
I’ve just given you a very watered-down and simplified version of what this day is. Now here is the real truth of it…
As mentioned earlier, these celebrations are usually led by the Orange Order and Loyalist marching bands. The Orange Order, which dates back to 1795, is a Masonic-style brotherhood sworn to maintain the Protestant Ascendancy. Its name is tribute to King William of Orange and each year they hold Northern Ireland hostage with marches in remembrance to this event whilst wearing their Orange sashes and black bowler hats. Along with them are the Loyalist marching bands, who were once paramilitary organisations but are now little more than drug-dealing thugs. These parades and marches are controversial for a number of reasons;
- They are associated with sectarianism, triumphalism and supremacy. Since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, the Irish Catholic population have been subjected to outright discrimination purely based on the fact that they are not British and Protestant. They’ve been the underdogs for a long time in the short history of the region and the PUL community like to remind them of this as often as they can.
- In relation to the first point, the Orange Order were able to parade wherever they wished; therefore, a favourite choice is to parade past areas where an Irish Nationalist community reside. These communities usually vacate their homes due to fear because at the end of the day, who wants intimidation at their doorstep? However, since the establishment of the Parades Commission, rules have been put in place to regulate these marches and some of the rulings have not gone down well with the Orange Order and PUL community. They believe they have a god given right to ‘march on the Queen’s highway’ and have caused severe riots in the past just because they had to compromise
- Public spending on these marches is ridiculous on a number of levels. For a starter, funding for Orange Order Halls has quadrupled from £500,000 to £1.9m on the watch of former DUP minister Paul Givan. Not only does this lead questions in regards to transparency and good-governance of public money, it basically endorses at an institutional level, an organisation whose core ideology is based solely on hatred, dominance and subjugation. Moreover, as these parades are so contentious, riots and violence often follow them wherever they go. In 2014, £6.7 million of public money was spent to police these parades and I would hazard a guess that that number hasn’t changed much in its variation each year since.
Parades with sectarian songs and symbols of triumphalism is one thing; however, there is nothing more sickening than seeing what your average bonfire on the eleventh night looks like. It’s common knowledge to those of us from Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland that the PUL community have a competition to have the tallest bonfire – why? The bigger it is, the more the ‘Taigs’ will see it.
Some of these bonfires are more than 70-80 ft. tall and are often constructed using hazardous and polluting materials such as wooden pallets and tyres. They are also built in densely populated housing estates were they are close to homes of which last year, three houses had caught fire as a result of a bonfire. Managing these bonfires had in fact cost the Fire Service £667,159 between 2010-2015 whilst the clean-up of the bonfires costs ratepayers and councils on average £280,000 a year.
In addition to the cost, there are the sectarian connotations attached to the bonfires. The PUL community have a tendency to hate a number of groups – Catholics, Irish, LGBT, Palestinians, immigrants, EU nationals, etc. So on these bonfires, they adorn flags, slogans and effigies that represent these groups. So a statue of the Virgin Mary, an effigy of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and pictures of other politicians, GAA flags, LGBT flags and xenophobic statements, will be the average thing you’ll see on a bonfire. Believe it or not, they consider this to be culture but it is nothing short of hate crime, and in most other societies this would not be tolerated.
To put a long story short, if you’re a member of the Catholic/Irish/Nationalist/Republican community, this month is dread for you. You will more likely try to arrange your one summer holiday of the year over the week of the Twelfth just to get away from it. Everything about this month highlights the lack of willingness to move on from the past from certain groups, it shows that Northern Ireland is far from being a ‘shared’ society, that compromise is not a phrase often used and that one group does inflict a hateful ‘cultural supremacy’ because they believe they’re entitled to because of an event that happened over 300 years ago.
Now here is something to consider, I am actually not against the Orange Order or PUL community in maintaining their ‘cultural’ events. I believe they should have them as long as they remain respectful, non-sectarian and regulated.
They can march in their own areas all they want for there is no need to parade in areas where they are not wanted. I personally don’t understand the mindset that would want to make someone feel intimidated in their own home. It’s inhumane. They can also build all the bonfires they want as long as they are not environmentally dangerous and unsafe. It would also be great if they could just remain plain without any bigoted hatred spewed all over them. Would it not be better to have one big communal bonfire in a shared open area that aims to facilitate cross-community relations?
Claiming that the Irish Language Act would somehow allow the Irish Nationalist community and other Irish speakers to dominate the culture of Northern Ireland, is a smoke screen because Arlene Foster and the rest of the DUP know that the jig is up. Having a standalone Irish Language Act along with a standalone Ulster Scots Act would simultaneously enhance the cultures from both communities. However, what Arlene and her ilk know is that Irish as a language is more widely known and used by those who culturally identify with it. They’re scared it would become too mainstream and heaven forbid if their ‘British Ulster’ was to have a strong Gaelic presence. Northern Ireland would no longer be Unionist supreme, it would be a region of equals.
So let’s twist Arlene’s words against her… “It’s the case of making sure that those you SHOULD equally represent also feel valued in Northern Ireland – what we no longer want to see is one section of the community having cultural supremacy over the other members of the community of which they live. What we want to see happen is that everyone is respected and that there would be mutual respect across Northern Ireland, and it is regrettable that the DUP won’t enter into that sort of dialogue.”
Emma Rainey @afootin2places is an advocate for social change, she blogs at afootintwoplaces.wordpress.com covering Current Affairs, Politics, Feminism, and Activism.
Image featured is art by Victor Sloan who can be found at http://www.victorsloan.com/