By Jamie Bryson
The call for ‘mandatory regulation’ of bonfires from nationalists is unsurprising. In keeping with their ‘never waste a crisis’ mantra, it was entirely predictable that they would weaponise a tragic accident at a bonfire in Ballysillan, and utilised it in the continued advancement of their cultural war.
However, it was surprising to hear UUP leader Doug Beattie repeat this call. I feel it necessary to set out from the start that I like Doug, he is a friend, but nevertheless I fundamentally disagree with many recent utterances and do have a concern that the ‘liberalising’ of the UUP on social issues (which is of course a good thing, those who are liberal on social issues within Unionism must have a home) is nevertheless being replicated in the approach to the constitutional issue and other matters such as culture and tradition. I deduce this from the absolute commitment to North-South bodies, even in light of the trashing of East-West, and the refusal to recognise the inherently Union-dismantling nature of the Belfast Agreement. This sits alongside the more recent calls for the mandatory regulation of bonfires.
The call for a mandatory regulation of bonfires will undoubtedly play well in the world of the Twitterati (which I need not point out is not the real world) and amongst the career peace processors who undoubtedly will see a cash bonanza attached to such a scheme. It won’t, I suspect, play well with anyone who actually cherishes traditional bonfires.
Mandatory regulation is fine if you do not live in a sharply contested cultural space. Let us remind ourselves Unionists could not even have a centenary stone at Stormont!
The Unionist community is already under siege by virtue of many of the post-98 structures which either explicitly or implicitly (via its mythical ‘spirit’) flowed from the pernicious Belfast Agreement. The last thing we need is yet another ‘regulation to eradication’ trajectory being set in motion.
The Parades Commission is a good example. That which was presented as regulation very quickly became the tool for eradication. And so too would that be the case in relation to bonfires.
Only a fool would believe nationalists want regulation; they do not, they simply see that as a Trojan horse towards eradication. They seek a structured legislative vehicle within which they can streamline their war on PUL culture. Nationalism does not seek equality, they demand supremacy.
One need only look at the approach of two nationalist Ministers in relation to Tigers Bay. So insatiable was their desire for the complete eradication of that small aspect of cultural celebration- which was deemed by the PSNI to present no risk to life or property- they completely lost the run of themselves and embarked on a hopeless foray into the High Court demanding an order from the Court to force the PSNI to take an operational decision which would create an Article 2 risk. They were thrown out that quickly they hardly needed to step outside of the revolving door.
Mandatory regulation- even with the best will in the world- offers nothing but cultural eradication. In my personal view, no Unionist or Loyalist should countenance it in any shape or form.
The calls for regulation also accompany calls to ban the burning of Irish flags on bonfires. I make no comment on that practice for the purposes of this article, rather I simply point out that burning a foreign flag (or indeed any flag) does attract the protections of Article 10 of the ECHR (see Stern Taulats and Roura Capellera v Spain application no.51168/15  in which burning images of the Spanish Royal Family was held to be protected under Article 10) .
In the United States, the Supreme Court has held that burning even the American flag is protected by the First Amendment. This view was even expressed by Justice Scalia, one of the most patriotic and conservative justices to ever sit on the Supreme Court.
I make this point simply to illustrate that it is not simply a matter of ‘banning’ the burning of Irish or other flags. It is not within the gift of the Assembly to do so given that such actions are protected under the Convention. Whether persons find it wrong and offensive or not, and I make no comment on the practice, is irrelevant. If we were to go down the road of banning everything another found offensive then we would quickly find ourselves in some kind of Alliance party utopia. I need not go to much trouble in pointing out such a fantasy is entirely without reason.
All of this is not to say that the PUL community should not seek to develop a voluntary Code of Conduct to ensure culture is expressed in the most productive, constructive and safe manner possible. That, of course, should be the underpinning of all cultural expression.
All regulation requires the implied consent of the majority of those being regulated, otherwise it is unworkable. The main lesson that should be learnt from the Parades Commission is that it only became empowered because the Orange Order and bands fraternity, out of a legitimate desire to act responsibly, co-operated with it. Had a collective approach been taken by that mass movement from the outset not to engage with the Parades Commission, then it would have been rendered impotent. If they were defied by all bands and lodges, then it would have been logistically impossible to criminalise an entire community who refused to engage in cultural regulation.
Therefore, it is patently obvious that talk of mandatory regulation can only serve to empower those dedicated to the eradication of every vestige of PUL culture and tradition. It should be rejected outright. That Gerry Kelly and John Finucane are singing the tune, with a choir of republican ‘commentators’ providing the backing vocals, should be enough to illuminate to the entire PUL community that this is another deceptive snare. Luckily we have caught this one at the outset.
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