Unionists were pleased that the cancellation of the traditional Bogside August 15 bonfire meant there would be no burning of flags and emblems this year, a Derry unionist councillor has said.
However, Darren Guy said news that the Bogside fire was not going ahead did not impact on the unionist community beyond the offence felt in the past at the burning of unionist emblems and the names of murdered police and prison officers.
The decision not to proceed with next month’s bonfire in the Bogside was announced on Twitter by the Republican Socialist Movement at the weekend.
The organisation said: “After several conversations with the bonfire builders, they have informed us that after discussions with local residents, they have made the decision not to have their bonfire due to young people from outside the area fighting and causing anti-social behaviour last year.
“The builders of the fire understand and respect the concerns of the community and this is why this decision has been made.”
While the decision was welcomed by nationalist leaders, Mr Guy said the response in the unionist community was much more muted.
“It’s safe to say the bonfire tradition is stronger and means much more in unionist communities. Unionists responded with the view that it meant one less bonfire to burn unionist emblems and flags on,” the Derry councillor said.
Mr Guy said both nationalist and unionist communities were hurt when offending material was placed on bonfires. He said work was being done within the unionist community to eradicate the practice of burning material offensive to the nationalist tradition so that the tradition could be enjoyed without controversy.
- Controversial anti-internment bonfire in Derry's Bogside called off
- UUP leader slams actions of some in unionist community who "shame us all"
The Bogside fire has been a source of controversy for a number of years as Union and loyalist flags, poppy wreaths and election posters were often burned on it.
There was particular criticism when the names of murdered prison officers, Adrian Ismay and David Black along with murdered PSNI officers, Ronan Kerr and Stephen Carroll were placed on the bonfire. Police also confirmed last year that they were investigating reports that shots were fired close to the bonfire.
While there was widespread criticism from politicians and community leaders of the Bogside bonfire in the past, it continued to enjoy some support and attracted thousands of spectators from throughout the city.
The August 15 bonfire tradition is a longstanding one, particularly in nationalist areas of Derry and Belfast. Fires were lit to mark the Catholic Church’s Feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The day is also traditionally marked in the North with parades by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
However, since 1971, the event combined with the anniversary of the introduction of internment on August 9 that year. In Derry, it also had an added edge, coming just three days after the traditional Relief of Derry bonfires and march through the city by Apprentice Boys.
While tradition was originally a religious one, those behind more recent nationalist bonfires often had different motives. In a 2018 study by the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, the authors noted that a “significant number” of young people used negative terms and words to describe bonfires.
“They associated it with anti-social behaviour and community disapproval. However, others were keen to stress the historical significance of bonfires and indicated that they were an expression of their identity and an opportunity to engage in ‘fun’ activities. It was also important to note the sense from participants that the bonfire never enjoyed the full support of the entire community,” the report stated.
In Derry and Belfast, community and political leaders moved to summer festivals as a means of replacing the bonfire tradition. The result has been the growth of the hugely popular Belfast Féile and Gasyard Féile.
The August 15 bonfire tradition continued in Derry’s Bogside until this year. However, there are still plans to stage bonfires – although on a much smaller scale – in the city’s Creggan and Galliagh areas.