openDemocracyUK: Opinion

On the Twelfth, Northern Ireland returns to its past. But its future looks different

Though bonfires, burning effigies and cries of ‘No surrender’ suggest the 17th century, Northern Ireland is embracing change – and Unionism must, too

Susan McKay
9 July 2021, 7.00am
Eleventh Night bonfires see the posters of 'disloyal' politicians burned
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

If you want to see the 17th century squaring up to the 21st and letting it know what it thinks of it, come to Northern Ireland for the Twelfth of July. There, you will see huge, tall, wooden pyres set alight, on which the election posters of politicians deemed disloyal will be burned along with the flag of the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. Sometimes there are even effigies of hated politicians dangling from gibbets or in coffins.

As these Eleventh Night bonfires blaze, you will hear the beating of drums and shouts of “No Surrender!” This is the cry associated with the Siege of Derry in 1689, when the army of King James was seen off. The following day, the Twelfth, marks the triumph of King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and today Orangemen remember it by marching with bands along ‘the Queen's Highway’ through every part of Northern Ireland.

All you need to know to get the gist of this is that James was Catholic, William Protestant; that the ‘disloyalty’ is to a Protestant state that no longer exists; that KAT, which you may also see on large banners pinned to some of the bonfires, means “Kill All Taigs” – and that “Taigs” is a derogatory term for Catholics.

Naomi Long is one of the politicians whose poster, with the slogan “Let's change things for good” will be burned this year. From a working-class Protestant background, she is the astute leader of the socially progressive Alliance Party. Under the terms of the power-sharing Executive set up after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, parties must designate as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Long’s Alliance is ‘Other’, though it includes many who support the union with the United Kingdom.

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A recent opinion poll showed a surge in support for Alliance – a good deal of it accounted for by votes that previously went to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Unionists insist that these bonfires are part of Protestant culture, and some, while by no means cross-community, are less fierce. It is in areas where there are paramilitaries that they tend to turn nasty. Long has described the burning of her image as “an act of intimidation and blatant hatred”.

Protestants once outnumbered Catholics by two to one, but the 2022 census is likely to show a Catholic majority

From Friday 9 July onwards, there will be traffic jams on the roads that cross the Irish border, heading south. Seats on coaches and trains are already booked out. While the Orange Order and its followers prepare to celebrate the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, others, including a sizable swathe of the Catholic, Nationalist population, will follow the alternative tradition of getting out of Northern Ireland. This exodus includes people who find in the Orange celebrations a distasteful and even frightening reminder that many Unionists still cling to the old dream of dominance over the place that they call “our wee country”.

When Northern Ireland was set up a century ago, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by two to one. That has changed dramatically: the 2022 census is likely to show an overall Catholic majority. Unionists no longer hold a majority of seats in the Assembly and Sinn Fein may take the role of first minister in elections to be held by spring of next year. This is unsettling enough – but there is also the fact that the DUP’s Brexit plan has backfired. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016, but the DUP saw in leaving a chance to re-establish a hard border in Ireland. It had a moment of unprecedented power at Westminster but by backing the manifestly unreliable Boris Johnson, it ended up instead with a protocol that has created a trade border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP is currently engaged in a bitter internal struggle over what it actually stands for. It has ousted two leaders in the course of a month, while the latest incumbent, Jeffrey Donaldson, is an MP at Westminster and does not even have a seat in the Belfast Assembly.

Many young people deplore the misogyny and homophobia that inform the DUP'S rejection of same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Young Protestant men are not joining the Orange Order either, rejecting its sectarian rules. Unionism has neglected its working-class constituents, traditionally relying on stirring up constitutional panic and resentment of ‘the other side’ to get their votes, while stirring up fear with warnings about paramilitary violence to discourage its political opponents from pushing it too hard.

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Earlier this year, the DUP's leaders met with an organisation that was set up as a kind of old comrades association for still illegal but redundant paramilitary organisations. They are now rattling rusty sabres again. There was some low level rioting, with older men instructing teenagers on how to throw petrol bombs.

At the time, the DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr. told Parliament that “the identity of Ulster is at stake.” He predicted more violence, while also condemning it. To distract from its responsibility for Brexit, the DUP is blaming all of its ill effects on the protocol, which it blames on the EU and Ireland. Predictably, Loyalist paramilitaries have translated this into blaming Republicans, by which they mean Catholics. There are claims that Protestants are now second-class citizens, that the UK has abandoned them, that Sinn Fein, the Republic of Ireland and the EU are out to destroy their culture. “KAT” is not without menace.

However, in reality, there is palpably little support in the Unionist community for a return to strife. People like the peace that the Good Friday Agreement heralded. The paramilitaries have become a burden on their own communities, their gangsterism focussed in particular on recruiting young men as drug dealers. Women who held communities together during the terrible years of the conflict are standing up to these men now, insisting that the authenticity of their experience must be recognised, that their voices must be heard. Some of these women gave evidence to a Westminster committee this week. They talked about poverty and educational under-attainment and bad housing. They talked about how young people need to be given hope. They meant young people right across Northern Ireland. The old binary no longer serves. Nor do the old belligerent words.

As a political manifesto for the contemporary world, “No Surrender!” is simply useless.

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