Bonfire season is in full swing and the annual rise in tensions is as predictable as instability at Stormont.
The perilous state of power-sharing in Northern Ireland — which has never moved beyond sectarian lines – has to shoulder much of the blame for fuelling a toxic atmosphere at this time of year.
A huge pyre in Larne has attracted attention once again and been described as a “feat of engineering”. An impressive structure it may be, but if a young person fell from the top or if it collapsed causing injury or damage then the craftsmanship would be scant consolation to those impacted.
Bonfires are unregulated, built without health and safety checks. But there is a desire to push the limits by building such structures higher each year which poses inevitable risks.
However, as the Londonderry Bands Forum’s cross-community engagement with young people in my hometown shows, there is a deep-seated pride and defiance amongst bonfire builders.
When asked about the potential for a young person to get hurt at a bonfire, those in the Catholic, Nationalist and Republican (CNR) Top of the Hill area said they didn’t think that would spell the end for bonfires.
One person said: “If somebody died at the bonfire the bonfire-builders would just make it bigger and dedicate the bonfire to the person who died.”
I hope that is not reflective of all bonfire builders; because no matter your political persuasion, I would like to think people believe that bonfires are not a cause worth dying for.
I had an interest in bonfires while growing up and understand the thrill for young people.
As time elapsed I formed the opinion that bonfires should be done away with altogether because of the environmental impact and hateful displays.
However, like many contentious issues in Northern Ireland, community workers and people on the ground have more gumption than politicians when it comes to easing tensions.
That seems to be the case in Larne where some progress has been made.
Through talking to those in the Derry City & Strabane bonfire working group and community workers I’ve realised a prohibition would be counter-productive. Making them safe is more important for now.
A number of CNR areas in Derry City have transitioned from bonfires to community celebrations. but bonfire traditions seem to have been upheld in Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) communities.
A section of disillusioned young people in both unionist and nationalist neighbourhoods remain attracted to bonfires.
Feedback from young people suggests that social media is a vehicle for those from different backgrounds to niggle at one another. In a spirit of one-upmanship this escalates to stealing flags and emblems from the other community to burn.
These disenfranchised young people rarely have an opportunity to meet someone from a different background. It is a bond between friends and a feeling of self-worth in their immediate surroundings that instils a sense of pride during bonfire season.
In many cases they have given little thought to the historic significance of emblems. That is not to excuse offensive behaviour, but it does go some way to explaining their mindset.
At this time of year there is talk about “respecting culture”.
Culture is not burning tyres, producing harmful toxins that damage health. Culture is not putting the names of murdered police or politicians on a bonfire.
Culture is not taunting your neighbours by flying Parachute Regiment banners in a city where that regiment killed innocent people. Culture is not attacking a councillor’s house and intimidating his family over a pyre.
That being said, it is no coincidence that bonfires are ostensibly built in working class and/or interface areas. These communities suffer most from deprivation. Without wanting to flog an over-used term, they have not received the promised peace dividend.
Plenty of people have prospered from peace in Northern Ireland but wealth is yet to trickle down to areas of acute need. When Northern Ireland’s so-called leaders finally move beyond sectarian politics, perhaps the young will follow.