On Monday our Volunteer In Missions group met at 1 pm with Researchers John Bell & Ulf Hanson, from the “Institute for Conflict Research” which focuses on conflict sources such as parading, segregated housing, segregated living, segregated education, and bonfires, and their alleviation.
This is the summary of the second portion of that meeting and this second portion concerns bonfires.
Bonfires are used to commemorate events significant to the community which sponsors them. There used to be about 38 fire sites. Now there are about 80 or 90 sites in Belfast. More bonfires are located outside Belfast, too.
The bonfires can be seen as threatening to the “other side,” which can be either side.
There have been efforts to convert bonfires to more of a festival. For instance, more efforts are being made to try to discourage paramilitaries from firing a volley in the air, as this is seen as inciting violence. Most bonfire organizers ban burning the tri-color flag of the Republic of Ireland.
Also, efforts are being made to clean up bonfires environmentally. The government is erecting walls around areas which are not supposed to be breached until the actual building of the bonfire begins. This keeps people from putting plastic and other obnoxious trash in the area where a bonfire will take place. Burning of tires has been banned.
The wooden structures created for the bonfire are impressive feats of architecture. Often they are burning towers. A tower which could fall over would be bad for neighbors. The bonfire structures are huge - over three stories high. The predominant fuel is pallets.
The better organizers keep young people off the structure so they don't get hurt.
Some community activists are trying to stop the fires. Some are trying to containerize the fire in a metal frame generally referred to as a beacon. Trash is banned from these beacons. Still, young people are mostly unimpressed by beacons. They report an element of disappointment to see a small beacon fire. Some attend impromptu bonfires held elsewhere and at the same time for people who don't want to watch the beacon fires.
Some groups are stressing the community aspect of bonfires. The one in North Belfast in Tiger's Bay. Children's play park, is an alcohol free event. Children could and do go.
The Cultural Networks Program is stressing fire isn't the only culture of Belfast neighborhood. South Belfast has embarked on a year long program to teach what is commemorated by the bonfires. South Belfast community organizers are trying to stress the cultural aspect of the commemorations.
The City Council's point of view recently was people are burning rubbish. They required fences around bonfire sites to avoid illegal dumping.
Young people find the fires exciting and they require a lot of organization and time to set up. Also, the hours and hours of work that go into building a bonfire keeps the builders from getting involved in street conflicts.
Some bonfires are very organized, some are organized by former paramilitaries. Others are more impromptu. Some are primarily built by young men. Some are built by gender equal assemblages of young people.
Primarily the bonfires occur in working class and poor areas. Some feel bonfires are more predominant in Protestant areas, but Catholic/Republicans developed bonfires in the 1980s to commemorate internment of their leaders. Originally, Republican/Catholic bonfires used to be on August 15th as this had a religious significance. Then the date went to 9 August as this is the anniversary of internment.
The July 11th date is a fixed date to Protestants.
Jean Paul, Director of West Belfast Festival, runs the largest community festival in Western Europe. In the late 1980s, in a number of Nationalist Republican areas, the conversation started, “Can we not do something more productive in a sense to promote our community, rather than burning stuff?” Also, the rioting at bonfires which took place up to that time led to numerous deaths, and the grassroots and leaders wanted to avoid such deaths. These desires led to the development in various places of community festivals. A district celebration often has smaller area celebrations done in conjunction.
(This summary of this discussion will be continued in a future blog.)