For the first time in a long number of years, I found myself in Belfast, where I grew up, on the 12th of July. As I know many people from Belfast do, I have avoided the city around the 12th weekend, or even week, at all costs, by planning an escape, whether to the north coast of Ireland – just far enough to escape the thick of the madness, or further afield in Europe, where you can blissfully avoid any mention of ‘The Glorious Twelfth’.
This avoidance is not because of any religious or political belief on my part, (for anyone who is curious, I am decidedly atheist,) but rather because of the behaviour of a minority of Northern Ireland’s population. For people not involved in the demonstrations, as a general rule feelings range from mild annoyance at travel routes being blocked, to intimidation into being essentially housebound for the weekend. Personally, I had a food supplies to last a good three or four days.
Having previously avoided Belfast at this time of year, I have to admit that I have partially turned a blind eye to the sectarianism existing in Northern Ireland that is highlighted by the twelfth. However, being unable to avoid it this year, I found what I saw frustrating and uncomfortable. I have no issue with peaceful demonstrations, of religion, tradition, culture, or indeed anything people feel they want to celebrate. I am fully aware that most people who celebrate the 12th do not intend to cause trouble, and see the public holiday as part of their culture. However, what is glaringly obvious is that there are people who use the celebrations as an excuse to riot.
Images of the Chobham Street bonfire, where nearby houses had to be boarded up, from bbc.co.uk and belfasttelegraph.co.uk
Bonfires are a big part of the twelfth celebrations, commemorating the burning of beacons in the 17th century, and, as usual, at the top of some of the fires (although not all) there were Irish flags, and pictures of notable Catholic and nationalist figures including Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly. Bonfires like these are not an act of celebration, but rather an act of sectarian aggression. On a more practical note, dealing with huge pyres built dangerously close to houses, to the extent that people have to be relocated and their homes boarded up, seems to me a waste of fire fighters’ time, and should not be accepted as a normal annual occurrence.
Images: left – riots at Ardoyne shops area, right – firefighter at Sandyrow bonfire, both from belfasttelegraph.co.uk
A particular area of conflict that highlights my concerns about the twelfth celebrations is Ardoyne. The Ardoyne stretch of road divides nationalist and unionist areas of Belfast, and has been notorious for conflict since The Troubles. As in the past two years, this year’s Orange March was allowed by Parades Commission to pass the Ardoyne shops once, on its outgoing route, but not on its return. (Presumably because later in the day more alcohol has been consumed…) This year, as in previous years, on the return route there was chaos. Loyalists pulled down barricades and threw bricks and bottles at police, resulting in many police injuries, as well as a car crashing into pedestrians, and subsequently having to be lifted off a teenage girl. It is clear that this part of the demonstration was nothing to do with a celebration of personal or national heritage, but either an excuse for blind violence, or, more disturbingly – and controversially – an attack on the Catholic, nationalist members of Northern Irish society. Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, made the following statement:
“I condemn these disgraceful attacks on the police. Those responsible do nothing to further the cause they claim to promote. They damage Northern Ireland and wreck a day which should be about respectful celebration of cultural tradition.”
In my opinion, Villiers has missed the point. Can the twelfth demonstrations, whether peaceful or violent, really be called a ‘celebration of cultural tradition’? I personally believe that the issue is more deep rooted than a minority of people using the parades as an excuse for violence. The real problem is what is actually being celebrated. For the sake of clarity, the historical significance of the 12th July is the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. How can Northern Ireland expect to end sectarianism when we have a public holiday celebrating a Protestant victory over Catholics? A public holiday indicates a celebration shared by all, but this is not something that can be celebrated by Northern Ireland’s population as a whole. It serves to stir up sectarian feeling and, whether or not this results in violence, it is a very backwards concept of a holiday that has no place in modern society.