This picture was taken from the Conway Mill complex just off the Falls Road a while ago. It overlooks the so-called peaceline between the Falls, in the foreground, and the Shankill, behind the wall. To me the imagery is stark. The area just beyond the wall looks like a wasteland. The children are playing with wooden pallets in a patch of land scarred by the annual bonfire. The children on the Falls Road side enjoy a game of swingball on a nice child friendly surface.
It is no wonder that there is a perception among the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community that ‘themmuns get everything and we get nahin’. But does it have to be this way? Why does the PUL community continue to burn up their open spaces with toxic bonfires, year in year out? I know it is part of their culture and I understand how important that is but there has to be a better way of celebrating their culture. It is difficult to have nice clean open spaces when for a good part of the year it is littered with household waste, wood and tyres and then scarred with a charred black circle.
I remember our local boney burning bright every year on the 9th of August. One of my earliest childhood memories is of rooting around the embers in the field the next morning looking for the plastic bullets that were fired during the annual riot which inevitably followed the all night drinking session. I quite literally got my fingers burnt when I picked up a scalding hot bottle that was a bit too close to the charred remains. During the late 80s the age old practice of bonfires fizzled out in West Belfast. Local festivals took their place and we haven’t looked back. They are not missed and the few that remain are viewed by the majority of people in our area as anti-social events.
Last year on the 11th of July I was driving up the Newtownards Road at about 12pm and was pleasantly surprised by the family atmosphere in the area. Bouncy castles and fairground rides were full of happy children while the smell of barbeques and the sound of pop music blasting through massive PA systems filled the air. Fast forward twelve hours to a different scene: with the drink flowing, the spark is lit on the toxic tyre-filled towering infernos, flames licking at the multitude of symbols associated with ‘themmuns’.
There is something mystical about large bonfires. It is a communal bonding experience. It does not have to be done away with completely. Certain areas have tried to adopt beacons in place of the bonfires. This has to be welcomed. Some responsible politicians and community leaders have tried to tackle the anti-social elements that are evident at the boneys but those who do so do this at some risk. Talk of removing flags and symbols from the bonfires is met with the excuse that they would be prevented or even attacked by the alcohol fuelled spectators. Does this threat mean that the bonfires are, in their present form, here to stay? Do the blue bag boyos hold the power over the PUL community?
Will the children beyond the wall ever get a nice place to play? If they could see through the wall would they want what the other kids have? When will their local representatives ensure that they get this? Or are they happy with this situation? There seems to me to be no real political will to do anything about the bonfires. The PUL community seems to want the bonfires. They are well used to them by now; they have been burning for generations. Is there another way though? Why not do what we did in the West: you might be pleasantly surprised.