Amidst ongoing tension over the erection of a bonfire in East Belfast, People Before Profit Cllr Matt Collins comments on the situation.
The issue of bonfires is once again at the centre of politics in Belfast, after a week-long standoff between loyalists, Belfast City Council and the PSNI over a 12th July Bonfire that has been erected in the grounds of Avoniel leisure centre, East Belfast. Tensions soared when loyalists rallied around the centre to defend and maintain the bonfire. Contractors refused to enter the site, the PSNI rendered themselves unable to enter, and the council abandoned plans to remove the illegal bonfire from its own site. As always, it has been working class people who have suffered the most from these events, with workers from Avoniel leisure centre being met with an intimidatory crowd who barricaded the entrance to their workplace at the beginning of this week, and many within the community speaking only anonymously for fear of retribution about their disdain for the situation and particularly the involvement of paramilitaries.
All socialists and progressives, across Belfast and beyond, should be appalled at the use of public space to erect bonfires of this kind, which are too often decked out in sectarian imagery and which become a focal point for sectarian behaviour. Every leisure centre in Belfast should be an open and inclusive space and the resulting intimidation of workers in this instance, many of whom are from the Protestant community themselves, is simply disgraceful. We in People Before Profit are resolute in our opposition to sectarian bonfires and to the ongoing use of bonfires for sectarian provocation. However, we are also just as resolute in calling out the rank hypocrisy of the political establishment who year-on-year facilitate the role of paramilitaries and work with them directly and indirectly, often providing them with state funding, and thereby create the context in which paramilitaries think they have the inalienable right to erect bonfires on public property, near people’s homes, or in other dangerous places. Thus, while we stand against sectarian bonfires, we view the root of the problem as the continuing state facilitation of paramilitary control, which has been ongoing over a long period. Indeed, the response from the great and the good of the political establishment this year is devoid of any serious recognition of the state’s role in fuelling sectarianism around bonfires, and the hypocrisy of political leaders who issue hollow words of condemnation every time sectarianism flares up is hard to stomach.
No to state sponsored sectarianism
Year on year, among many of the loyalist bonfires erected on 12 July, sectarian or racist slogans and symbols have often been commonplace. Many of these bonfires flout very basic health and safety concerns, with some built dangerously close to homes and apartments (and with the memory of Grenfell still fresh in our minds), not to mention the obvious environmental concerns that come with the burning of tyres and other harmful substances. A large amount of these are supported and funded by Belfast City Council’s bonfire management programme, to the tune of thousands of pounds. Two years ago this situation took an even more ludicrous turn when news broke that the Council had been helping to store some 3,000 pallets to be used for bonfire material. What is evident year after year is that there are many working class Protestants living in communities where these bonfires are erected—and vigilantly controlled by paramilitaries—who oppose them. Yet they are nothing more than an afterthought to the political establishment who enable this behaviour annually. It is not just one side of the community who is interested in challenging bonfires, nor is it only one side of the community who is repulsed by the presence of paramilitaries. The involvement of the East Belfast UVF in upholding the Avoniel bonfire site—which by now has as much been admitted by the Council and the PSNI, but in reality was no doubt known to even the dogs in the street—is a particularly sinister element to the whole affair, considering the reactionary and violent nature of the organisation.
Against the build-up of State supported loyalist bonfires, we can no doubt expect the erection of nationalist bonfires during the August internment anniversary. These bonfires receive no state funding or support from any major political party. At best they are void of progressive political and historical motivation and at worst ape some of the most unsavoury aspects of loyalist bonfires. The events every July and August never fail to lead to the annual debate between political parties on Belfast City Council, yet both unionist and nationalist parties have for years bought into a sectarian carve up of Council funding, normalising and institutionalising sectarianism in our society, funded by the public purse.
The left must be clear that if the State is a primary source of sectarianism around bonfires, then it can not and should not be relied on as the solution to the problem. We should also be alert to the danger of any regulations being used to enforce a particular kind of ‘community control’ in future, where the big unionist and nationalist parties are able to decide what other events are acceptable or not in their areas.
Whether presented as culture or tradition, bonfires do not have an inalienable right to exist, or to be funded and facilitated by the public purse, especially if they are unwanted and foisted upon working class communities by a small minority, where they present a danger to public health and where they advance reactionary sectarian and racist ideas.
Working class unity is the solution
Ultimately, challenging the bonfire issue requires challenging the sectarian carve-up of politics in the North; it means challenging the state and the rotten sectarianism that it espouses, and building a political movement that can unite working people across the divide. Events later in the month may present us with the kind of struggle that can turn the tide away from division in this city. On 26 July public sector workers are set to take part in strike action for better terms and conditions. Struggles like these, involving Catholic and Protestant workers uniting across the divide to fight for their common interest, offer us concrete examples of how we can really begin to challenge the stranglehold of sectarianism. Principled opposition to sectarianism alongside working class unity from below can perhaps point us to a time when division does not define our future.