The Curious Case of Loyalist Bonfires in Northern Ireland

“The revelation that Belfast City Council is involved in facilitating the storage of pallets (including stolen pallets) to be burnt on loyalist bonfires typically adorned with posters of nationalist politicians, Kill All Taigs-emblazoned Tricolours, Celtic shirts and a statue of the Virgin Mary would be remarkable on its own, but news that the stored pallets have been ‘stolen’ just as City Councillors were set to agree that the material would not be returned to loyalists more than suggests that something is seriously rotten in the state of Denmark City Hall.” (Slugger O’Toole)

Loyalist Bonfire
Fig. 1 The recently built Ballymacash Bonfire in Lisburn which consists of 3000 Pallets.
Fig 2. Properties near Cobham St Bonfire being boarded up in 2015.

The story above caught my eye (click on links to see the full story). I had not paid much attention to Northern Ireland for years, since the Good Friday Agreement up till the time of the Brexit Referendum. I had rather hoped that with the onset of the Peace Process, Northern Ireland would gradually return to normality. Brexit has the potential of throwing a spanner in the works. The Slugger O’Toole story above however seems reminiscent of the bad old days. With the DUP propping up the Torys the worry is that even more of a blind eye will be turned.

In the 1990’s the annual Drumcree Loyalist March was headline news in the UK. It was one of the many occasions where the Loyalist would march through Nationalist areas to “show who’s boss” or “simply exercising their legitimate right to march where they wanted” depending on your point of view. Since the Peace Process and the formation of the Parades Commission such marches are more managed and less controversial, much to the frustration of some elements in the Loyalist community. The marching season, in the run up to the 12th July, was always a worry in terms of violence but has been calmer over the past 20 years.

Loyalist bonfires used to be small affairs and fairly harmless, admittedly with a stuffed effigy of the Pope on top, but probably similar in scale to Guy Fawkes bonfires in England, though of course some of these can also be quite large such as that in Lewes.

In recent years however there has been a trend for larger Loyalist bonfires in Northern Ireland as for example in Figure 1 the Ballymacash bonfire pictured above. Unable to express their traditional right through marching, Loyalist bonfires have grown bigger and the number of hated Catholic/Nationalist symbols to be incinerated dramatically increased.

Another issue as in Fig. 2 is bonfires being lit on traditional sites close to buildings which may have been fine for the smaller bonfires of the past but terrifying to local residents given the trend for larger bonfires. Houses have literally to be boarded up to prevent the windows from exploding. Local residents are often not keen on these bonfires.

There are strong links between Northern Ireland and Scotland and in particular Glasgow, with the Loyalists supporting the Rangers football team and the Nationalists Celtic. It seems that the burning of Celtic shirts is not affecting the team as it has had its best season in over 100 years. Rangers of course is not doing so well and possibly producing an increased paranoia.

The story above does however raise serious doubts about the impartiality of the authorities in Northern Ireland. I have no concerns about the Loyalists keeping their traditional bonfires, but both the size and destruction of Nationalist symbols seem excessive and bordering on intimidatory. Indeed as someone who was brought up in the Catholic tradition I find burning statues of the Virgin Mary deeply offensive and potentially be considered a hate crime in other circumstances.


  1. Jeni Parsons aka havantaclu -

    With the DUP now part of the coalition in the UK, it seems likely that tensions between the Protestants and the Catholics are not going to decrease. Personally I’d like to see a re-unified Ireland – even though my maternal grandfather was a Black-and-Tan (he died before I was born).
    I’ve read some Irish history – particularly Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book on the 1840s ‘Great Hunger’ and the story of the rebellion of 1798 which directly led to the Act of Union. From these, it was clear that Ireland was one of Britain’s colonies, with the Catholic population as the colonised and the Protestants as the colonial power. The Empire honed its skills of repression on the Irish Catholics before spreading their reach over larger populations in India and Africa. You have only to research ‘who started concentration camps?’ to find out that it was neither the Russians nor the Germans…
    I met an old man when I was living in Kenya, back in the 1970s. He and his family had been interned during the Mau-Mau ‘problems’ of the 1950s. He had been tortured – two of his children died of starvation. His grandson was one of my brightest students – unfortunately after he’d graduated, he was killed in the Nairobi bombing. I also met Ngugi wa Thionyo, who should by now have received a Nobel Prize for Literature.
    After these encounters I found myself ashamed to be British. So, since my return, I have always called myself a European – with a Welsh patrimony.
    It seems, since my return, that many of the English cannot give up their dreams of Empire – the Trident mess; the new aircraft carrier ‘that shows we can still punch above our weight.’ Clinging to what they see as a glorious past. Which you know – and I know – to be a chimera, forged of illusions.
    The young are waking up – they’re the only hope for the future of this country.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The Black and Tans were not well liked in Ireland. Indeed I come from Republican stock, though I grew up in Dublin both my parents were from Co Limerick in Munster which was diehard Republican territory. Many of my granduncles fought in the War of Independence and I used to attend military funerals for them as a small child. My grand uncle Gareth, who was the most charismatic, was a medical student in Cork and used to be in the strange position of shooting British Soldiers and Black and Tans and looking after them in A&E an hour or two later. He saw a clear distinction between the British State (hated) and the people (“Only poor buggers like ourselves”).

      I am of course well aware of Irish History, the country (with the exception of Northern Ireland) was effectively bled dry in the 19th and early 20th century, and the inglorious history of the British Empire. The Republic of Ireland hasn’t always got it right but is doing much better than the UK particularly if you remove London and the South East. Indeed it could be argued with Ireland and the colonies gone, Wales, Scotland, the North of England and the West of England are now being treated as colonies of London and the South East (particularly under Tory rule).

      Regarding a United Ireland, the North will have a majority Catholic population within about 10 years. At present however a lot of Catholics support the Union. With the Good Friday Agreement and the UK within the EU it was a perfectly tenable position. Catholics however voted about 85% to stay in the EU. Of the 15% some were “Lexit” and others voted Leave in the belief that it would be disastrous for the UK and hasten a United Ireland. Brexit is going to be very disruptive (for NI in particular it could be a disaster) and there may well be a small majority in NI which will support a United Ireland within a few years; a 51%-49% split would be perfectly possible, which is all that is needed with the GFA. How the Loyalists will react to a United Ireland is key to its success. I know plenty of NI Protestants, but all well educated and traveled, and they are thoroughly nice and decent people. The Loyalist population is predominantly working class and segregated from the outside world.

  2. Peter May -

    “Ashamed to be British”. Agreed.
    But Lord Palmerston was an Irish peer who sent British gunboats to get the Chinese to consume opium. So ashamed to be Irish might be equally relevant.
    I fear ashamed of our ruling classes, then as now, is what I think we need to take on board.
    And now we have to try hard and hold them to account.

  3. Peter May -

    And on the stolen pallets (nothing if not the important issues on Progressive Pulse!) I cannot understand how or why GKN who own the blue pallets, and their French competitors (who own the red ones and whose name I’ve forgotten..) do not complain to the Stormont government. It is pretty obvious from their colour that they own them and anyone in possession of them is either renting them or has stolen them. Perhaps Northern Ireland has found the solution to rent extraction?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      We only need white pallets to make up the Union Jack or as in the curbstones painted in red white and blue in Loyalist areas such as Larne, to show clear loyalty to the Queen and make an even more impressive bonfire. We should donate some. The Irony of the Loyalists burning red white and blue pallets would be lost on the Loyalists. I hope you will welcome them back to Britain in the case of a United Ireland.

      1. Peter May -

        Yes I’d take them, although as James I shipped many of them out there in the first place I’m not quite sure why we should have them back. After 500 years I’d say they’re Irish now. On that time scale I’d be due back in Germany or maybe France.
        Still if they arrived they’d quickly realise that it’s not like home – they are tiny fish in a big pond.

  4. Richard Murphy -

    Slugger O’Toole is always worth a read

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed but like the Guardian and unlike TRUK the comments quality is mixed.

  5. Nile -

    This gets complicated, in several unpleasant ways, very quickly.

    I would like to think of the OUP as the ‘respectable’ end of Ulster Unionism, and the DUP as the disorderly and violent ‘Loyalist’ end of the Protestant community; but that view whitewashes the complicity of the respectable landowners and businessmen of Ulster in discrimination, bad governance, and tolerating or condoning the excesses of sectarian extremists.

    .. And, of course, all such tidy views of a political mess fail the test of reality: ‘respectable’ Unionist politics consists of Lady Hermon and her one and only seat, held as an Independent. The OUP is over: there are no OUP MPs.

    Maybe the majority of pro-Union and protestant voters are respectable, in the best sense of the word: but their elected representatives are fall far, far short of that.

    I take that inconvenient political fact at face value: the DUP represent their non-Catholic electorate.

    So the displays of sectarian dominance and their signals of a willingness to violence cannot be dismissed as an amusing curiosity, nor as a ‘fringe element’ far away from the everyday affairs of respectable politics.

    Slugger O’Toole is very careful to skirt around that, and leave it to his readers to examine what it means. Or, of course, to leave it unexamined: much of modern Ireland is the everyday political evasion of the unspoken and uncomfortable facts of the past in the present day.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      they say the Irish remember too much history and the English too little. Fudge is necessary as in Northern Ireland I’m afraid, there has been to much blood lost plus a demographic time bomb which will make the Catholic community the majority within 10-15 years. With your surname I suspect that you have Irish ancestry? As well as the OUP being over, so sadly is the SDLP (and I was and still am big fan of John Hume) but the tide is such that a United Ireland will happen within the next 30 years barring extraordinary circumstance. It would have been far better if the Unionists bluff had been called in 1921 and there had been a United Ireland; even Edward Carson (the Unionist leader at the time) thought that he had been stitched up by the Torys (plus ça change).
      In the Republic we had the dead end De Valera Catholic Ireland “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads” (OK I know he apparently never said it) but “the past is a foreign country” applies very much to Ireland.

      I don’t dismiss the Loyalists or DUP as an amusing curiosity; it worries quite a few Dubliners that we may have them as part of our country in the next decade or two. I have written a more detailed piece here: and your observation that their “sectarian dominance and their signals of a willingness to violence cannot be dismissed as an amusing curiosity” is exactly right.

      Brexit throws a hand grenade to NI but I live in hope!

      1. Nile -

        It worried an acquantance of mine, a Gardai, that policing by consent cannot work in a forcibly united Ireland.

        In his own words: “It would end with us conducting a Dirty War. And they have friends in America, too”.

        I see it coming, eventually, though economic unification – which we have effectively achieved – against a background of economic stagnation and political repression in a failing Britain. Which I hope we do not come to see.

        But even an overwhelming majority in a referendum for unification, reinforced in subsequent elections, supported by a majority of Protestents, would leave a hardcore of opposition. Not merely hardcore non-cooperation: thousands of adults engaged in destructive violence organised by skilful and resourceful psychopaths experienced in low-level warfare, intimidation, and assassination.

        The Republic does not have the resources to manage that, and they know it. Not ‘manage it peacefully’; not even ‘survive it by applying the resources of the state in wholesale violence against the citizens’. The Republic is, by intention, a state and a society without the systems to conduct such actions.

        Where does that leave us?

      2. Sean Danaher -

        sadly your Gardai acquaintance is right. The NI economy is a worry. The Republic was way ahead in the late 90s but the NI economy grew very rapidly in the 1998-2008 period and was catching up rapidly. The Republic had a major recession but since about 2013 it is pulling way ahead of NI again. Brexit is highly destabelising and potentially an economic disaster for NI, never mind the impact of a hard border. It could also make the UK a deeply unattractive place to live, but I hope I am being too pessimistic here.

        I had hoped the Loyalists would chill a bit after the Good Friday Agreement and time would make NI a more normal society, but the Slugger story shows that the Loyalist psychopaths are not going anywhere soon; indeed if anything they are doubling down. As Johm Major puts it “the hard men have not gone away.”

        A United Ireland may not be inevitable. One very sensible Unionist “MidUlsterMan” (his name on Slugger) argues that the increase of Catholics births is largely down to Eastern Europeans in particular Poles, who he thinks may vote Unionist rather than Nationalist. I’m not sure I agree with him, but he thinks a UI may never happen.

        People I speak to in the South understand the issues and hope it will be another generation before a UI happens. The South uses “soft power” and abhors “hard power”, it has been the brunt of too much of this in its history but has not gone the way of Israel. It is deliberately very much unmilitarised and would need to change dramatically as a state to handle the Loyalist threat.

        I think other options such as a Crown Dependency need to be explored. Brexit is an extraordinarily bad idea and I hope there is a 2nd referendum when the term of the deal are known and we stay in a reformed EU.

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