Leona O'Neill: Bonfires should not be allowed to become beacons of hatred, for the sake of our children

Bonfires are a part of the loyalist and republican traditions, but too often they become beacons of hatred designed to antagonise 'the other side'. How have we let this become 'normal', wonders Leona O'Neill

Bonfires were lit in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland on Saturday night. Picture by Stephen Davison
Bonfires were lit in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland on Saturday night. Picture by Stephen Davison

SUMMER seems to shine a very big spotlight on what is still so very wrong here in Northern Irish society. Bonfires in particular – in both loyalist and republican communities – do absolutely nothing for community the relations that we all try our very best to nurture in the other months of the year.

Every year, each of these pyres stand tall, adorned in the flags that the 'the other side' hold dear. They are often decorated with messages of hate scrawled on sheets or boards, effigies of dead people, election paraphernalia and symbols of a different community that those who place them know will spark a reaction.

Regardless of what they actually represent in history, or what they might have represented in times of old, year in year out these fires just burn bright in the night like big beacons of hate, not hope.

It seems like every year we enthusiastically, willingly and violently rip the plaster off an old wound and let it seep out throughout the summer months. It festers and gets infected and we have to spend the rest of the year trying to heal again, only to do the same thing when the next year rolls around.

I would suggest that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But I don't think we do want a different result, really. This time of year brings out old tribal emotions and the gaping chasm between us gets wider.

This time around, it was symbols and signs on loyalists bonfires causing the offence. As well as the usual display of tricolours to be burned, many bonfires were adorned with vile banners celebrating the death of senior republican Bobby Storey, who died last month.

Regardless of your views of the man – and many in the loyalist community have made their opinions of him widely known – Bobby Storey himself is gone. The only people those sick banners and signs were upsetting was a family in the throes of grief. His wife, his children, grandchildren and siblings.

The people who fashioned those banners and made those jokes were no better than the republicans mocking the deaths of prison officers in previous years. It's tit-for-tat, hurt upon hurt. Both are only compounding the grief of heartbroken families and as such causing deeper rifts between the two communities who desperately need to heal.

The sight of a children's bonfire, described as such because they are lit earlier for children before the main bonfire at midnight, with a sign that read 'KAT' – 'Kill All Taigs' – was particularly sickening.

If we normalise this type of behaviour, if we teach our children it's OK to hate 'the other side' we will still be dealing with exactly the same issues 25 years down the line. Do we want that or do we want a normal society for them?

Children need the space to thrive and grow in a nurturing, open, caring and respectful environment. Seeing their parents and other adults celebrate hate towards a different community than theirs will teach them nothing but, and I know it's perfectly obvious, hate.

Communities have every right to celebrate their cultures and traditions in whatever way they like. But do we have to do it in such a sectarian, divisive and offensive way year in year out? It does none of us any good, particularly not the next generation of young people who we are just handing our hatred to, weighing them down with it every year.

Northern Ireland needed some manner of integrated education bill passed decades ago. Had children been educated together back then, perhaps now integrated education would be the norm, respecting each other would be the norm, and tearing each other down in the Summer would be frowned upon.

Hatred should never be the norm. We have much work still to do here in Northern Ireland.