Twelfth festival of hate
The state moves to support loyalism
14 July 2021
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his deputy Paula Bradley visit
Adam Street bonfire in the Tigers Bay area of north Belfast.
Events have moved on from this year's Twelfth parades, with general relief at the absence of widespread violence. However a sense of unease is left by the saga of the bonfires.
The defence of Orange bonfires draped in expressions of hate is always the same - tradition. The Orange have always done this so they must be allowed to continue.
In reality the fires are simply an expression of unionist dominance where a loyalist underclass come to the fore in an annual Saturnalia. Their reaction to the presence of Sinn Fein in government is to build the bonfires taller. They can forget for a day their domination by the capitalist leaders of unionism and celebrate their role as supporters of the ascendancy.
Tradition has nothing to do with it. This is especially the case with the fire in Tigers Bay Belfast, where it has been moved to an interface with the nationalist New Lodge area in an act of provocation, underlined by a barrage of golf balls aimed across the barrier at home and cars.
However this bonfire became an important political weapon used to stabilise loyalism in the aftermath of the fragmentation of the Democratic Unionist Party, with Edwin Poots displacing Arlene Foster only to be himself almost immediately deposed by Jeffrey Donaldson, with the whole cycle set off by frenzied DUP support for Brexit and subsequent betrayal by the British.
Part of the stabilisation campaign has been kicking the Northern Ireland protocol down the road and British negotiator Lord Frost making a series of pro-unionist and anti EU statements. Keir Starmer of labour has played a minor role, blaming Boris Johnson for "fragility" and assuring unionism that the time was not right for a border poll.
However the main political imperative was the coronation of Jeffrey Donaldson as the unifying leader of unionism. This could only be done by moving right, so the DUP leaders turned up at Tigers Bay to support the bonfire. By doing so they were signalling that they could guarantee the support of the British state and set aside the wishes of the nationalist ministers who administered the land on which the bonfire rested.
And that was the outcome. Donaldson has gained in stature amongst the loyalists, alongside the credibility of his strategy of alliance with the Brexit government in Westminster. How viable this is in the long term depends on British interest. If they tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol all will be well with unionism. If they strike a deal the Protocol will stay, as will DUP responsibility for reckless support for Brexit. The price of supporting Donaldson was high.
The police have always refused to apply the law when it comes to sectarian intimidation but have agreed to protect private contractors employed by councils or government departments. Now they refuse even that. The grounds of their refusal provides an even wider impunity. They feared civil disorder. The courts cited police independence as grounds for supporting them.
One can only wish that the RUC had had the same thoughts at the run-up to the modern Irish conflict when in 1966 they acted for Paisley to remove the Irish tricolour from an election office and triggered the Divis Street riots, only finally suppressed with 20 B specials on every street corner.
Nationalist protest was extremely muted, with Sinn Fein calling for tranquility and stability. The demonstration of unionist impunity disrupted cheerful talk of a United Ireland just around the corner.
Overall the Twelfth showed a movement in decline. This is the centenary year of partition. There was no central march because of Covid restrictions but the local demonstrations were humdrum, despite a major British subsidy for the centenary.
In one area the Orange tried to advance, with loyalist flags erected in mixed housing areas as a standard form of intimidation. This met with vocal protest and for the first time ever some residents defied the paramilitaries and removed the flags.
The response to unionist fragmentation and decline is to argue that a United Ireland will arrive shortly. The Twelfth events confirm that decline, but also show that the state is willing to move in to hold up the sectarian state and that nationalist politicians are more interested in holding on to the patronage they now have rather than protest unionist unity based on sectarian hatred.