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OPINION: Gradual collapse of statutory bonfire schemes is a strategic victory for loyalism

By Jamie Bryson

The gradual collapse of statutory bonfire management schemes is a strategic triumph for those within loyalism that have plotted for a number of years to make the schemes unworkable.

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The schemes were never anything more than a way to ‘buy off’ loyalist culture and tradition, which would eventually lead to bonfire builders and groups being criminalised for refusing to comply with the terms of the schemes.

Loyalism has often been dismissed as reactionary and devoid of any long term strategy, however on this issue a number of loyalists have displayed remarkable strategic vision and plotted a slow and patient course, gradually chipping away at the statutory grip upon the management schemes. This approach has gathered many more converts as the years have passed.

Of course, there are some who have found themselves becoming reliant upon the financial incentives. This has locked those groups in a perpetual cycle of cultural compromise.

It was revealed in the media in 2016 that some loyalists had threatened to take Ards and North Down Borough Council to court to force their hand on attempts to link festival funding to bonfire conditions.

As a result of this threat of legal action in 2016, loyalists in Ards and North Down secured a fresh negotiation of the bonfire policy. What was produced, for loyalism, was a strategically advantageous document that allowed the linkage between festival funding and bonfire conditions to move into an area of constructive ambiguity. The bonfire conditions became aspirational rather than enforceable.

I praised this scheme, as a bonfire management scheme it was probably the best framework that loyalism could possibly achieve. This, however, was in the context that it was an advantageous staging post, a transitional document that would eventually open the door to achieving the ultimate objective; the complete eradication of statutory led conditions being placed upon unionist culture.

Now in 2018, and largely thanks to the legally shaky grey areas inserted into Ards and North Down Borough Council’s previous documents, it is time to move to the next stage of the cultural protectionist agenda. That, as I understand it, may take the form of a robust legal challenge being brought by a member of the community who finds themselves denied the right to equally access community festival funding, unless they sign up to conditions upon bonfires. This is the crux of the matter due to the fact that council claim they do not give consent for, nor fund, bonfires. How then can they make adherence to such conditions a pre-condition for accessing fun day funding?

Such a test case would have a real chance of success- which would be defined by having festival funding made available without any statutory  conditions placed on bonfires linked to that cash. For a much mocked and maligned community, it certainly does appear like statutory agencies have underestimated the ability of loyalism to play the long game.

This has all been aided of course by increasingly aggressive attempts to regulate bonfires, primarily focused on east Belfast and the mid-Ulster area.

The Belfast injunctions of 2017 turned out to be a watershed moment, certainly for what would have been perceived to be UVF linked bonfires in east Belfast. This perception of course is not strictly true. Simply because a former UVF combatant attends a cultural celebration within their community, this does not render the said event controlled by the UVF.

When Bobby Storey, Martin Lynch or other prominent IRA men attend the West Belfast festival I do not hear these cultural celebrations described as being controlled by the IRA. When then is a different standard applied to the unionist community?

After the 2017 injunctions were announced many people braced themselves for a violent response. Journalists dug out the hard hats. Instead east Belfast loyalists responded by going on a PR offensive. Journalists were treated to burgers and coke and welcomed with open arms to the affected bonfire sites. A new strategic approach that caught just about everyone by surprise.

As a result the injunctions collapsed amidst public ridicule, and a failure by Belfast City Council to even comply with their own court order in terms that would have seen the injunctions take effect.

Many will say that it is all very well breaking the back of statutory regulation, but what comes in its place. That is straightforward.

Loyalism must show constructive leadership to self-regulate, perhaps even within individual communities agreeing a voluntary code of conduct. Such positive leadership need not be reliant upon financial reward, but rather borne out of a desire to preserve and protect an important part of unionist cultural expression.

If statutory agencies wish to provide support for cultural celebration festivals, as they claim they do, then why does such support need to be entwined with statutory conditions seeking to suppress bonfire culture?

The answer to the aforementioned question is clear. It is because funding festivals is done for a particular objective, namely to act as a carrot to lure groups into being complicit, either knowingly or unknowingly, in the gradual eradication of their own culture. This is what is known as a ‘nudge’ approach.

That is why it is so positive that many sections of loyalism are pushing back. One shove through the doors of the High Court is likely to undo many years of statutory nudges.

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