Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for the UCC Express.
Is the Twelfth a celebration or an unapologetic provocation? In truth, it is both. The twelfth day of July marks one of the most controversial events in the Irish calendar. Only last week the people of Northern Ireland celebrated or had to endure (depending on your perspective) this historic night. There is an old saying in GAA circles that goes “I went to see a fight and a Junior B Hurling match broke out.” On the twelfth day of July in Northern Ireland something similar occurs. The Orange Order put on their war paint, dust off their battle drums, don their orange camo gear, set off towards Belfast, look for a fight and more often than not a march breaks out. Go figure. It is too easy when writing an article such as this to assume the reader has an in depth knowledge of the topic at hand. In this instance it is best to provide a brief background. The Twelfth is an Ulster Protestant celebration held annually on July 12. It originated during the late 18th century in Ulster. It celebrates the victory of Protestant king William of Orange over Catholic king James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. On and around the Twelfth, large parades are held by the Orange Order and Ulster loyalist marching bands, streets are draped in British flags and bunting, and large enormous towering bonfires made of wooden pallets and tyres are set alight. The Twelfth involves thousands of participants and spectators, although not all Protestants celebrate it. Many Catholics will plan their holidays so they are not present that week. In Ulster, where about half the population is from a Protestant background and half from a Catholic background, the Twelfth is synonymous with violence. Many Catholics and Irish nationalists see the Orange Order and its marches as sectarian, triumphalist and supremacist. The Order is also politically a unionist/loyalist organisation. Attempts have recently been made to downplay the political aspects of the marches and present the Twelfth as a cultural, family-friendly event at which tourists are welcome. The definition of sectarianism in the Collins dictionary is as such: ‘Sectarianism is a form of bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. Common examples are denominations of a religion, ethnic identity, class, or region for citizens of a state and factions of a political movement.’ Now that we’re on the same wavelength, let’s dissect what Mrs. May has to do with bonfires and Orange sashes.
Theresa May has ascended to the lofty heights of the Conservative party, credit where it is due, that is no mean feat. However, reading an Irish History book is obviously not on the curriculum as a prerequisite for becoming Prime Minister because she clearly hasn’t ever picked one up. If she had done so, she would not have gotten down on bended knee and asked the DUP leader Arlene Foster for her hand in coalition? Then again maybe I am wrong? Maybe Theresa frequents her local café with a box of Amber leaf, orders a flat white and licks her lips as she is about to tuck into chapter six of ‘A New Ireland’ by John Hume. Hardly though right? I’m going to stick my head above the parapet here and go out on a limb when I say that this marriage is much like that time 102-year-old Hugh Hefner married 26-year-old Tiffany from Somerset. There is an ulterior motive. Theresa May strikes me as an intelligent woman. She is an educated and well-informed woman. Therefore, she knows perfectly well what she is getting herself into by aligning power with the DUP. She knows exactly what the DUP are, what the DUP were and she knows without question that her party is weakening. All this I’m sure without ever having read a paragraph of John Hume’s aforementioned book, crafty lady no? Furthermore, she can also see the progress and strength the Labour party has garnered under the guidance of Jeremy Corbyn. This makes her willingness to team up with Arlene Foster and the DUP as all the more worrying. The reason being is that it becomes abundantly clear when you take an action as drastic as this, you’re doing so out of sheer desperation to cling to power for your own personal gain rather than to benefit the people you were elected to represent. That is a shame. However, that’s one wedding you’re glad you weren’t invited to. It would be like that scene from ‘Friends’ where Ross says the wrong name at the altar, Theresa would say ‘I take thee Jeremy’ and it would all kick off. Luckily I was washing my hair that weekend.
On a more serious note, the DUP and Arlene Foster have strong links with the July 12 celebrations, so do the Orange Order, and rightly so. The Twelfth is a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne victory. A victory, which forms a great deal of the Protestant belief network and it is a victory that is engrained in Protestant culture and society. Bonfires and marches are part of this culture and so be it. Where the Twelfth falls down is that it brings with it needless controversy and violence. The Orange Order simply doesn’t help themselves with regards how its members or how said bonfires are continuously endorsed by Loyalist paramilitaries. This year was no different than the years’ previous with regard controversy. Actually I stand corrected. This year was a little different. Theresa May gave Arlene a one-billion-pound wedding gift just a month previously. Imagine how many pallets and tyres you can buy with that kind of cash! Forgive the facetiousness of that comment because what came next was indeed very serious and unfortunate.
Given the recent passing of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the attachment of his effigy as well as a black coffin with a picture of him inside to a bonfire in Belfast, must have been tough for his family to witness. Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney said the bonfire builders’ behaviour stood “in stark contrast to the work that Martin McGuiness did to build reconciliation and reach out the hand of friendship”. He said the effigy was “grossly insulting” to McGuinness’s family and he added that it was “unacceptable” that unionist politicians refused to condemn “this kind of hate crime”. Sinn Fein and SDLP election posters, and Irish tricolours, were placed on bonfires across Northern Ireland. Bonfires across Belfast were significantly bigger than in previous years. Homes beside the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire were boarded up to protect them from heat damage. The PSNI said it was investigating complaints about “distasteful” materials placed on some bonfires. One such “distasteful” piece of material was a racist remark directed at Celtic footballer Scott Sinclair. It was a large rudimentary banner that read, “Scott Sinclair loves bananas” not exactly the most intellectual piece of art. Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill called for an end to what she called the “annual display of hate”. She said: “Once again, we have witnessed bonfires across the North being festooned with stolen Sinn Fein election posters, Irish national flags and other emblems. The theft and burning of posters from any party, as well as flags, effigies and other symbols is not culture, it is a hate crime. I have written to the PSNI Chief Constable and told him it should be treated as such by the PSNI and appropriate steps taken. There is also a responsibility on unionist political parties and the loyal orders to show some leadership on this issue and end this annual display of hate once and for all.” Fire crews were called to 133 separate instances over the course of the night. Two of these cases were reported because the bonfires had been set alight to close to apartment buildings and residents could feel the heat from inside their homes. All the more worrying considering the Greenfell incident. The unfortunate aspect of scenarios such as this is that these heinous acts committed by a minority of hate filled individuals gives a poor representation to the public of law abiding Protestant public in the North that want peace. These actions give a warped interpretation of Protestant and Unionist culture.
However, even more unfortunate is the DUP leader Arlen Fosters comments on the events. She said, “Bonfires on the Eleventh Night have long been part of the unionist culture. Those who have waged a campaign of demonisation against such celebrations should dial down the rhetoric. To those who build bonfires, I urge them to not play into the hands of those who want to demonise the culture. They should be respectful of their neighbours. Endangering property and lives should not be a concern for residents on the Eleventh Night. These should be events that all the family can enjoy. We will work constructively with communities to achieve this.” Mrs Foster said she wanted Northern Ireland to move forward to a place where Orange culture was supported and respected by all. “I do not want any culture to threaten or dominate any other,” she said. You’re going the wrong way about it Arlene.
Like it or not, Theresa May will have to pencil in the Twelfth of July to her diary for the foreseeable future. She has made a long-term commitment for better or worse and until death do them part. The Twelfth of July is indeed a controversial topic. If one is to be impartial, the event does serve a purpose, it is certainly a celebration. Without doubt. It is a proud moment in History for Protestant and Unionist people. However, it is possible to celebrate the event without showing disdain for the Nationalist and Republican population of Northern Ireland. After all it is their home too. This is where the event transforms into an unapologetic provocation. The need to march through Catholic and Nationalist areas is not good for the Peace Process and the Orange Order simply do not want to concede an inch of ground in this regard. There does not seem to be a ‘No man’s land’ if you will. This is unfortunate. The actions of those that consistently adorn the bonfires with sectarian, racist and provocative slogans/pictures etcetera sully the view of the public annually. New eyes watch these events every year and these actions paint a derogatory view of the Protestant and Unionist population that simply do not feel the same way. This too is unfortunate. However, you do not get a second chance at a first impression. Maybe next year they can start afresh. Until then I hope for Theresa May’s sake, she made Arlene sign a prenup.