As is now the norm, on the night of July 11th a significant part of the unionist – or pro-British – minority in Ireland marked the evening before their annual July 12th demonstrations with the lighting of huge bonfires across the north-east of the country. According to press reports, and in line with previous years, some of the pyres were dotted with the election posters of Irish nationalist parties, notably Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the PBP, or moderate unionist grouping like the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. In many cases a disproportionate number of the election materials stolen and readied for burning featured images of women candidates. Other bonfires were dotted with the national flags of Ireland, Poland, Palestine and the Vatican City, not to mention the symbols of several sporting and cultural organisations, highlighting anti-Irish, -immigrant or -Catholic sentiments among some local unionist communities.
A number of the “wooden towers” were topped with the banners or emblems of various British terrorist factions, displayed alongside racist or sectarian messages directed towards “Niggers” (people of colour) and “Taigs” (Roman Catholics). Related to this, the campaign to remove the “Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia” from public buildings in the United States of America has led some pro-British extremists in the UK-administered north of Ireland to see parallels with Irish disdain for the “Union Jack” banner. In recent years this has led to a profusion of so-called Confederate flags in loyalist celebrations and 2016 has proved no different.
As usual, the mainstream unionist parties, the DUP, UUP and TUV, were very public in their support for the intimidating conflagrations on the anarchic “Eleventh Night”. These included the DUP’s Paul Givan MLA, the regional minister for the communities at Stormont, who recently reallocated public funding to loyalist military-style bands, following the slashing of educational budgets for Irish-speaking children with special needs by his party and ministerial colleague, Peter Weir MLA. In County Tyrone a grinning Givan personally lit one bonfire with a torch, a scene reminiscent of a Dixiecrat senator attending a cross-burning demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the southern United States during the 1930s. Meanwhile in County Armagh, a former DUP minister, Edwin Poots MLA, was pictured posing in front of a roaring bonfire previously covered in tricolours, the national flag of Ireland. Similarly, Danny Kinahan MP, a UUP member of the British parliament, was photographed at a bonfire topped with an Irish flag ready to be burned.
All of these press and social media reports serve as a useful reminder that “Northern Ireland” is not a country or a nation or a region. It is quite unlike anywhere else in Europe. It is instead the last remnant of a military colony on the island of Ireland, the shrunken Irish territory of the former imperial state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It is a place whose very existence brings perennial shame to Western Europe. It must end.