Unionists could do with learning more about history they celebrate

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

What does a bonfire with election posters of Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance candidates tell you about unionist/loyalist/Orange culture?

What do those burning posters – along with effigies and other assorted offences –tell you about the Battle of the Boyne, or King William, or the lasting impact of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-90?

As Elizabeth Wicks noted in her book, The Evolution of a Constitution: “The constitution, and the way in which individuals are governed under it, has undergone some radical transformations since the seventeenth century – the growth in the executive, the role of Prime Minister, union with Scotland, democratic suffrage and the increasing influence of international and European obligations – and yet the contemporary relations between Crown and Parliament, and between individual and government, still rest upon the foundations of this seventeenth-century revolution settlement.”

A keystone of those foundations was the 1689 Bill of Rights; and that Bill sits alongside Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 and the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 as one of the basic documents of the United Kingdom’s uncodified constitution.

It was one of the key inspirations of the United States Bill of Rights a century later. William’s victory over James in July 1690 secured the Revolution and secured the Bill of Rights. That is worth remembering: and it is worth celebrating over 300 years later.

So it worries me when I hear very little about that history and, instead, hear far too much about bonfires fuelled by those election posters.

In fairness – and it also happens to be a very important point – the vast majority of bonfires are managed, inoffensive, safe, fun, family friendly and completely absent of election posters and other potentially offensive material.

And that’s exactly as it should be: which is why they attract so little media attention and no attention at all – even in the form of acknowledgement – from people who seem to think that all bonfires are wrong.

But, ‘99% Of All Bonfires Perfectly Safe And Inoffensive’ doesn’t make a headline. So it was inevitable that the few bonfires – probably a mere handful of the hundreds that were lit on the Eleventh Night – which were decorated with posters, pretend coffins and unpleasant graffiti, would attract attention.

And in a world in which every mobile phone has recording and filming capability, it is now also inevitable that those isolated cases are quickly deemed to be the norm rather than the exception.

Ben Lowry had a very good piece in Saturday’s News Letter (‘Bonfires can be a fine spectacle but unionists should have spoken about the risks,’ July 15) about the potential dangers posed by towering infernos close to property.

Those fires need to be brought under control and either significantly reduced in size or relocated. But it is also essential that key unionist, loyalist and Orange leaders across Northern Ireland make a far greater effort to ensure that all bonfires are free of the posters etc.

That sort of thing has nothing to do with the events and history that the Eleventh and Twelfth supposedly celebrate. It was always out of place (although given what was happening here for almost 40 years, it wasn’t entirely surprising; stupid things happened on both sides) and is particularly out of place now, when unionists and republicans co-govern in the same institutions.

But the only way anything will change is through engagement and education. I understand why a section of loyalism still sets so much store in monster bonfires and going out of their way to cause offence.

They have been left behind by mainstream unionism; they look around their world and see none of the benefits that were supposed to flow from the peace process. All they see is non-stop attack on their cultural benchmarks and touchstones.

Again, that’s not surprising; educational underachievement and unemployment rates are particularly high in some loyalist areas; which further feeds their sense of betrayal and isolation.

I’ve argued for years that one of the real problems for unionists is that we don’t know enough about our own history: and, in far too many cases, we don’t even know very much about what we’re actually celebrating or commemorating.

Say what you like about Sinn Fein – and yes, they do have a tendency to rewrite parts of it – but at least they have a grasp of the historical narrative they want to promote and then promote it relentlessly.

Two years ago I was commissioned to write a piece about the Twelfth. What surprised me was how little the people I spoke to (Orange Order members and spectators) knew about the history behind the event.

Some spectators told me that it was “about sending a message to republicans that we’re still here and still strong”. Some Orange members told me that it was, “a family thing – we’ve been in it over the generations”. Not one person raised the Glorious Revolution or the 1689 Bill of Rights: although Protestantism was mentioned.

We’re just under four years away from Northern Ireland’s centenary. If the celebrations are to have a purpose and make an impact then unionism – in all of its manifestations – needs to get to grips with its own history. Who are we? What matters to us? What is our heritage? How do we define our culture? How do we prepare for the future? How do we secure the Union? It has to be more than ‘God and Ulster’.