The Eleventh of July bonfires in Northern Ireland have again been flashpoints, both physical and metaphorical.
To the outside world, the capacity for Loyalist communities to bring rubbish, pollution and destruction into their own streets seems confusing. Why would anyone want to build a forty foot high bonfire that causes smoke and scorch damage in the area in which it is placed? Why would anyone want to intimidate their neighbours into consenting to anti-social activities? Why would anyone want to attach flags to lamp posts and leave them all year until they become faded shreds of rags? Why would anyone want to leave a site strewn with rubbish? Why would anyone regard under-age drinking, sectarian songs, and the burning of effigies to be an expression of their culture? Why would community leaders not wish to discourage members from behaviour that only damages their community and the environment in which they live?
Twenty-five years ago, Dr Samuel Poyntz who was the bishop of the Church of Ireland Diocese of Connor at the time, spoke of the sense of hopelessness and desperation within Loyalist communities. Dr Poyntz’ diocese included areas of north Belfast and Co Antrim out of which had come Loyalist gunmen responsible for sectarian murders. “Not for them “Tiocfaidh ár lá,” he said, referring to the Republican slogan, “our day will come.” Whilst Republicans looked forward to a future united Ireland, Loyalists struggled to cling to an imagined past. Working-class Loyalists never understood how their plight was similar to that of working-class Republicans, and as the demographic and political tide began to turn, found themselves more and more alienated.
A quarter of a century later, the sense of marginalisation has not lessened, for what are the bonfires other than a declaration of frustration and anger? The poorest Loyalist communities have found no vision from either political or theological quarters.
Politically, the populist, socially-conservative Democratic Unionist Party has been unable to offer any vision. Opposed to every piece of liberal social reform, it has lost ground electorally, its support declining among younger voters tired of its entrenched views.
Theologically, the evangelical ascendancy in the churches that were once a pervasive presence in Loyalist areas has meant a focus on a personal, individualistic religion. Northern Ireland evangelical Christianity chimes with political neo-liberalism, people pick and choose what they want, they buy into that which suits, and push aside that which does not fit their material lifestyle choices.
Neither politicians nor church leaders have provided a vision that might empower the poorest, most alienated Loyalist people. The bonfires marking the eve of the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne are not triumphalist statements, but a shout of defiance against a perceived political and establishment that has been contented to let them slip into a nihilistic, myopia.