The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service logged 123 calls between 9 p.m. last Monday and 1 a.m. on Tuesday, of which 42 were related to the annual Eleventh Night bonfires. The fire engines were ready and waiting when a pyre of wooden crates about seven storeys high was set alight in a cordoned off car park in Sandy Row at midnight. There were loud cheers as the flames engulfed a large Irish tricolour with ‘KAT’ (‘Kill All Taigs’) scrawled in pen across the flag’s white third. (A Taig is a derogatory term for a Catholic. The white is meant symbolise peace between the Protestant Orange and the Catholic Green.) The heat was so intense I found myself squinting. Beyond the car park railings, firemen hosed down windows to cool the glass, but it wasn’t enough. A Bangladeshi family in a flat overlooking the bonfire watched on as their window shattered.
The next morning, as thousands of Orangemen met at Carlisle Circus, Belfast’s empty streets were coated in an ashy film. Two terraced houses were gutted and another seriously damaged on the Shankill Road when embers from the bonfire got into their connecting roof. At Chobham Street, a playground was dismantled and moved to make way for a bonfire. An Ulster Unionist MP was photographed in front of a bonfire with an Irish flag on it and a banner declaring ‘no surrender’. The Democratic Unionist communities minister Paul Givan posed smiling as he lit a bonfire in County Tyrone. He recently announced the re-instatement of a £200,000 fund for marching bands; the cash had been cut by his Sinn Fein predecessor. Belfast City Council paid a private contractor £1500 to store 870 pallets for a bonfire in the east of the city. Some of the bonfires carried signs about Brexit: Northern Ireland voted to remain, but most loyalists voted to leave.
The bonfires commemorate fires lit across north-east Ulster in 1690 to guide King William of Orange into Belfast Lough. The Orange Order was founded more than a century later, in September 1795, in Loughgall, County Armagh. The Orangemen were a marginal, reactionary force for most of the next century but as the Home Rule movement in Ireland grew, so did the order’s influence. Having helped found first the Ulster Unionist Party and then, in 1912, the Ulster Volunteer Force, it took on a central role in the new Northern Irish state. All Stormont prime ministers and most cabinet ministers were members of the order or its related organisations.
The Orange Order, often out of touch and politically maladroit, is no longer the force it was. Membership has declined. The Drumcree stand-off that unleashed such violence in the mid-1990s is, remarkably, still going on, despite minimal interest from all but the most irredentist brethren. But the Twelfth retains a distinct symbolic power. Men in bowler hats and orange sashes march beneath colourful banners preaching temperance and quoting the Bible, while drunk young men sing sectarian songs about being ‘up to our necks in Fenian blood’. An attempt to rebrand the Belfast parade as ‘Orangefest’ almost a decade ago has not been wholly successful. Most of my Catholic friends still leave the city during the holiday. Laws banning street drinking are effectively forgotten. At a street parade before the Sandy Row bonfire, a sound system blared out Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, teenagers posed for photographs with an Ulster Freedom Fighters flag and street vendors sold beer for £2 a bottle.
Since 2013, a permanent encampment on Twaddell Avenue, a working-class North Belfast street named after a unionist MP shot dead by the IRA in the 1920s, has protested against a Parades Commission ruling that local Orange lodges could not parade past a row of shops in the nearby republican Ardoyne. The camp is an underwhelming affair; a couple of static caravans and banners with slogans such as ‘Liverpool Supports Ulster’ and ‘Defending Our Culture’. Policing the increasingly sparse nightly march and the summer riots has cost an estimated £21 million.
On Tuesday morning, a few hours before the main parade, demonstrators gathered as the lodges began their walk past the Ardoyne shops and towards the city centre. A residents’ group aligned to Sinn Fein stood in silence holding a banner that said ‘Resolution is possible’. A few weeks earlier, a deal had been scuppered by the intransigence of one of the three lodges involved. A hundred feet down the road, towards the encampment, a group of about fifty republicans opposed to the peace process shouted ‘Walk of Shame’ and ‘SS RUC’ as heavily armed police surrounded them. Local loyalists complained angrily to the chief constable that they couldn’t reach their homes. The whole scene had a stylised choreography. Everyone seemed to know their roles. A young bandsman from the Pride of Ardoyne told me that he used to go to the Twaddell encampment every night ‘but now I only come every few weeks. It’s boring.’
The parade in Belfast went off peacefully. Men and women in First World War costumes recalled the Battle of the Somme. Outside St Patrick’s catholic church, where sectarian tunes had been played in previous years, the bands played only a single drum beat. Elderly people on deck chairs clapped politely as more than a hundred bands passed through the centre of the city on their way to ‘the Field’, where Orange leaders made speeches decrying calls for a United Ireland and in praise of the Gospel. The afternoon was less solemn. Dance remixes of ‘King Billy’s On the Wall’ played from stalls selling red, white and blue gimcrack. Empty bottles of Buckfast lay strewn in Shaftesbury Square as the drummers and flautists made their way back into the city. Among the worst behaved were the Scottish loyalists, who come in significant numbers.
By 7 p.m. more republican protesters were outside the Ardoyne shops. Armoured police cars lined the road. But for the first time in years there was no rioting. A member of one of the three lodges, a representative of the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group, handed a letter to the police. Their day was over. Across Northern Ireland, the number of Twelfth-related disturbances has declined dramatically. ‘In 2016 we are in a better place,’ according to Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. ‘But success is still measured by the absence of violence as opposed to creating positive outcomes. Our benchmark is pretty low.’