*Photo Credit- Kevin Scott –@kscott_94
By Jamie Bryson
The tragic accident which led to the death of John Steele- an ardent bonfire builder in his community- is already being weaponised by those seeking to use the incident as a means of advancing their agenda of eradicating bonfires.
It is demeaning to our community to think that we are so stupid or naïve that we would be fooled by the feigning of sympathy for the friends, family and community of Mr Steele by an assortment of nationalist activists. Their true agenda is revealed by the words that follow in their next breath, which is nearly always to make ‘strategic’ use of the accident as evidence in support of their cultural-war agenda to secure regulation (and thus eventual eradication) of bonfires.
Indeed, many of those pretending to be concerned about the welfare of the PUL community are the same people who are surrogates (or in some cases former election candidates) for Sinn Fein. It is fascinating how those who endorse (to this very day) a thirty-year terror campaign which murdered and maimed men, women and children from our community are all of a sudden Mother Teresa, caring deeply about keeping us all safe.
Do not be fooled. Nationalist demands for regulation are a strategic staging post along the way to securing the eradication of bonfires. And after that, they’ll move on to whatever aspect of PUL cultural expression that remains.
It is a tried, tested and well refined strategy. They started it with parading in the 1990s, then onto flags on public buildings, then onto flags on lampposts and then in the last decade onto bonfires.
The objective fits into the overall ‘process’, which for nationalists is all about incrementally breaking down all cultural and community cohesion within the PUL community. This is achieved via relentless demonisation, social media mockery, bullying, mainstream media pressure and the deployment of contrived ‘concerns’ promoted by nationalist surrogates with a platform to do so.
If there is a strong, vibrant and cohesive PUL community (of which a shared PUL culture is a key part), then there will be ever greater resistance to the progression of the ‘process’ to its ultimate pre-determined end point of Northern Ireland being torn out of the United Kingdom.
Accordingly, breaking down any resistance requires breaking down the strength and cohesion of the community which stands in the way.
There is undoubtedly scope for PUL cultural expression groups to come together and formulate a voluntary regulation scheme- designed by our community, for our community. A shared and collective endeavour.
But that isn’t the demand. The demand is for statutory regulation- similar to the Parades Commission. There will be few unionists and loyalists who haven’t learnt the lesson of the fatal error in ever recognising and thus making the Parades Commission workable.
If there had never been engagement with the Parades Commission, it would have been rendered unworkable. It is primarily designed to regulate the cultural identity of only one community; if the entirety of that community had refused to engage or recognise it, then it would have never been able to survive. The fatal mistake was giving it credence, and as has been demonstrated, once it got a foothold, it has waged a relentless war on the parading tradition.
And this war on parading- as it would be with bonfires- has been incremental. They do not simply seek to eradicate the tradition all in one go, because they know that would only create strong resistance. Rather they deploy a ‘nudge’ approach, slowly chipping away ‘piece by peace’ until all of a sudden they have strangled large aspects of their cultural target.
This is the real agenda behind regulation. It starts off with a promise to ‘enhance and protect’ the culture, but then it begins imposing conditions, acceptance of which is rewarded with large sums of money. I always opposed the bonfire management schemes which provided financial reward for adherence to conditions (I have written numerous papers from 2007 onwards urging the PUL community to reject bonfire funding and management schemes– see for example Why Unionists Should Reject Statutory Led Bonfire Schemes: Jamie Bryson | Longkesh Inside Out).
In the first instance every year the conditions became incrementally more onerous, and with each year that passed the community became more reliant on the funding for the celebration. This reliance was then exploited to tighten the noose ever more each year.
It also had the effect of turning some bonfires into events for gatekeepers rather than genuine community events. Those who received the funding controlled the bonfire.
As this developed, in many areas the community participation waned. Everything was paid for by funding, and the community no longer all mucked in making sandwiches, bringing sweets for the kids, and contributing in various other ways.
In some respects it went even further. Not only was the community element in terms of the fun-day around the bonfire removed, but in some areas beacons replaced bonfires, and therefore the community participation in building the bonfire was also removed.
The council, or some other funder, would wheel in a beacon on the 10th and 11th July, pay for a fun day, and that was that. It is no wonder the heart was ripped out of many communities.
In Ards and North Down Council, there was even an element of the bonfire scheme which provided more funding if you removed your bonfire and had a beacon. It quite literally offered a financial incentive to remove longstanding cultural expression.
This further diluted the community cohesion of the cultural identity.
I am delighted to see in the last number of years, a growing number of bonfire groups have rejected the bonfire management schemes and funding. There have been many groups who have reverted to making the bonfire tradition reliant upon community effort and participation, rather than something that is funded.
And this has put the heart back into many communities. It has also helped rebuild the cohesion broken down over twenty-five years of the ‘process’, which was designed to incrementally remove and dilute any PUL resistance to the objective of moving- in small steps- to a cultural, political, and eventually sovereign United Ireland.
The resistance is now stronger than ever, with defiance once again embedded into the heart of the PUL community. We must not make the mistake of undoing that reversal by entertaining the notion of engagement with any statutory or otherwise funded bonfire management scheme.
There is scope for voluntary regulation schemes- but it should be developed by the PUL community, for the benefit of the PUL community. Not at the behest of nationalists, or anyone else.
The notion that any self-respecting PUL community is going to beg for permission from nationalist dominated councils, or any other statutory agency, for their grace and favour to ‘allow’ us to celebrate our culture (in compliance with imposed conditions acceptable to nationalists) is for the birds.
Safety of bonfire builders, and the wider community must be paramount. This means including the community, and ensuring everyone is welcome at their local community bonfire and are able to- if they want- play a role in contributing to the event.
There has never been a greater example than that set by Craigyhill in Larne. Not only are they world record breakers, but their bonfire has involved the whole community and is organised with military precision. There are stewards, a fun day (free for the community) and a safety zone marked around the bonfire.
The Craigyhill Bonfire Committee is a shining example of voluntary regulation, and it is that which all cultural sites should aspire to, rather than falling into the trap of accepting statutory regulation schemes, often imposed with the carrot of funding.
For what so shall it profit a man, to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?