An angst-riven cult waiting for the end

Today is a very important day for the Loyalist sub-culture on this island.

However, I believe that the Eleventh-night bonfires have assumed somewhat greater importance for Ulster Loyalism in recent years.

This year all four contentious marches have been banned by the Parades Commission.

The ‘no talk no walk’ policy still does not seem to have been fully understood by some of the Loyal Orders.

The cost to the public purse of this type of standoff is considerable.

For example, the policing costs for ‘Camp Twaddell’ in North Belfast is now put at £21m.

Any wandering anthropologist who wished to brave the heat and the drunken aggression of the environs of a Loyalist bonfire tonight might find it horribly instructive.

I suspect that our explorer might conclude that they were observing the important ritual of some end of the world cult.

If the anthropologist delved deeper, then our intrepid adventurer might deduce that this was a deeply insecure sub-culture.

Moreover, one that builds bonfires to signal their cultural fragility rather than an approaching fleet in the late 17th century.

However, unlike the extinct folk of Easter Island, there will be no lasting memorial to The People who build these pyres.

Here on Easter Rising Island, they are on the wrong side of history.

Moreover, they know it, and it eats at them.

A senior Republican stated to me during the period of the Good Friday Agreement talks that “if parity of esteem is achieved here for Nationalists then Loyalism is finished.”

As the Parades Commission and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) go about their work some of the marchers are realising that their coat trailing days are behind them.

Ulster Loyalism defines itself by what it hates much more than what it proclaims to love.

What appears on an 11th Night bonfire can give an indication who is on the most hated list for this year.

In 2014 a ‘Yes Scotland’ flag was placed on a Loyalist bonfire.

This year it is an EU flag.

Brexit bonfire

The Brexit vote has undoubtedly empowered fascists and racists all over the UK, and Norn Iron is no different to what is currently happening in Britain.

Modern Ulster Loyalism is rooted in an event just before the First World War.

An armed militia was organised to oppose the democratic decision of the United Kingdom Parliament.

The Larne Gun Running and the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force was clearly as treasonable to the British state as the actions of the insurgents in Easter Week.

This was a rebellious act against the Westminster Parliament, and yet it is central to the origin myth of Ulster Loyalism.

I would not blame our anthropologists for being a little baffled at this stage.

Of course, burning people alive in public has a long and shameful history in Europe.

Thankfully it is no more and many of the superstitious hatreds that caused this barbarity are also a thing of the past.

It is remembered here in this sub-culture as effigies are placed on bonfires to remind Loyalism that they define themselves by what they are not.

The reality of living beside one of these conflagrations is not pleasant.

In recent years some families have had to be evacuated due to the dangerous levels of heat generated by some of these massive pyres.

Large bonfire

The messages of hate on these bonfires are undeniable and the xenophobic vibe is clear for anyone who cares to look.

Foreigners Out bonfire pallet

However, most of the hate crimes on these bonfires are directed at their local enemies.

The Good Friday Agreement and the Saint Andrews Agreement made it implicit that a shared space for both cultures was non-negotiable.

With that in mind, the following images do seem to spit in the eye of that rapprochement.

Bonfire effigies and flags

By this stage, our anthropologist might well conclude that this was a cult desperate for a game-changing result as they are about to be washed away by a tsunami of modernity.

A couple of weeks ago Robin Hardy the film director died.

He is best remembered for the cult British horror classic ‘The Wicker Man’ which he directed in 1973.

The film is about a pagan cult on a remote Scottish island who finally resort to human sacrifice to appease their deities.

In doing so, they believe that their crops will once again bloom on the Summerisle.


When I look at these 11th-night bonfires, I cannot help but think that the builders somehow believe that if they just build them high enough then they can turn back the tide of history.

Of course, human sacrifice at times of existential angst is not unknown to Loyalism.

It is accepted wisdom in this sub-culture that a dead Taig cures much of what ails them as a community.

However, it is the Orange State that is truly expired and in Brexitland the sustainability of Norn Iron, shorn of EU funds, starts to look shaky.

When the final embers die tomorrow, and the stench of burnt tyres starts to dissipate then some of The People will know that they need an Irish passport.

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