Drugs and bonfires in the north of Ireland
Davy was looking forward to the Twelfth celebrations on the Shankill last week, especially the eleventh night bonfire. Davy is not an Orangeman, but ‘‘I suppose I’d be a loyalist supporter,” he said.
It wasn’t politics that had him excited last week, however - it was the opportunity to make some easy money.
‘‘This is one of the biggest nights of the year for me. In fact, after New Year’s Eve, it’s probably the biggest. I’ll be busy all night; it’ll pay for me and the missus to go to Ayia Napa in August,” he said.
Davy sells drugs, mainly ecstasy and speed, and he had a ready market among the hundreds of young - and not so young - who gathered at the huge bonfire on the Shankill Road. He didn’t have to worry about the police. They keep their distance. And the paramilitaries wouldn’t interfere either; they ‘‘tax’’ him on what he sells.
For many Protestants in the North, especially in working class areas, that is how the Twelfth celebrations begin. The biggest cheer of the night is normally reserved for the UVF and UDA, groups involved in wholesale drug dealing and crime.
When the huge fires are lit often burning tyres and other toxic materials - tricolours are burned. Slogans such as KAT (Kill All Taigs) are often daubed on the tricolours. In 2005, one bonfire trumpeted the suicides of several young men in the nationalist Ardoyne estate.
This year, GAA shirts were put on top of the bonfires too. Chris McGimpsey, a Shankill Road Ulster Unionist councillor who is regarded as a moderate, said last week that the GAA should look at why Protestants see it as sectarian.
With the power-sharing deal in place in the North, many people are now asking what the future of the Twelfth should be, and are looking to the 50,000-strong Orange Order to take the lead. The question is whether an inherently sectarian and triumphalist celebration which for decades has been the most vivid display of unionist dominance over Catholics - can be re-moulded in a post-Troubles, power-sharing North?
In simple financial terms, the Twelfth has been a disaster for the North since the mid1990s. Disputes around the marching season almost singlehandedly crippled the region’s tourist industry, which was expected to take off after the ceasefires.
Instead, the fortnight around July 12 became the time of the year when local hoteliers took their holidays. Much of the heat has now gone out of the marching season, and the mass protests appear to be a thing of the past, but shops, bars and restaurants still close on the Twelfth.
The Orange Order is trying to promote the Twelfth as Orange Fest, a tourist attraction for the North.
But it is questionable whether this can ever succeed, especially when no alternative ways of celebrating the occasion have emerged, aside from a firework display.
More fundamentally, the Twelfth marches have a deep sectarian symbolism and, unless Orangeism’s relationship with the state changes, the parades will always have the potential for violence and menace.
David Scott, the education officer of the Orange Order, is responsible for finding ways to promote the ‘new face’ of the organisation.
‘‘There is a lot of good work going on with the Orange Order and the community which people don’t see,” he said. ‘‘We are going out to schools and interacting with young people. We have the Williamite display on, which is attracting a lot of interest from tourists.”
However, Scott’s definition of ‘the community’ does not include Catholics, and he said the ban on Catholics joining the Orange Order would not be removed. The group has about 50,000 members, the vast majority of whom are male.
While the Orange Order enjoyed a surge in applications for membership during the stand-offs over marches at Drumcree, anecdotal evidence suggests that its membership has slipped in recent times. The group last week found itself criticised over the practice of building up huge, environmentallyunfriendly bonfires in urban areas.
Thousands of car tyres were burned last week, along with other hazardous materials, leading to calls - even from some unionists - to stop the practice.
In a pointer to how things may go in the future, the village of Stoneyford, a few miles outside Belfast, had a beacon instead of a bonfire.
The key mover in that plan was, somewhat surprisingly, Mark Harbinson, an ‘ultraloyalist’ who in recent years, led loyalist bands around a newly-built, mixed-religion housing development in the village.
‘‘I’ve been pushing this for two years,” he said. ‘‘There has been opposition to it, but people have started to see the benefits of having a type of bonfire which is clean and doesn’t leave the town with a big mess to clean up after. It also makes it more accessible for families.”
That theme of families was picked up on by Dawson Bailie, the leader of the Orange Order in Belfast.
‘‘We want to get back to what the Twelfth was before the Troubles, when families would come along and Catholics would as well,” he said.
Ironically, if unionists do want to change the Twelfth, they may find themselves following the example of republicans who, almost 20 years ago, ended the practice of burning bonfires to commemorate the introduction of internment on August 9.
Throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s, republican bonfires became flashpoints for rioting, and Catholic communities were left with dirt and rubble from the fires.
In 1988, the west Belfast festival, Feile an Phobail, was introduced as a replacement.
Since then, it, and other such festivals in republican areas, have established themselves as part of the summer calendar in the North.
The festivals feature music, debates between unionists and nationalists, workshops on politics and literature, and debates about global events and Irish history.
A few years ago at the festival, Jeffrey Donaldson, the arch-unionist sceptic, talked directly to Seanna Walsh, the IRA man who announced the formal ending of the group’s campaign in 2005.
Guest speakers in the past have included the US documentary film-maker Michael Moore. Whether unionism and the Orange Order in particular - can envisage the Twelfth broadening out in such a fashion remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Davy reckons he has made about stg£700 for his night’s work, and the people of the Shankill are left with the charred remains of the bonfires.
Altogether, the night cost the taxpayers in the North stg£1 million in clean-up, medical, and police bills.
The socially-deprived communities of the area celebrate their ‘dominance’ over Catholics by spending the Twelfth marching onward with their leaders in the Orange Order.
Those leaders seem to be more comfortable dealing with the past than the realities of life in the North today.
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